With free agency effectively concluded and the 2021 NFL Draft firmly in the rearview mirror, the NFL’s 32 franchises have all but solidified the rosters that they will take into training camp this summer. That list includes the Baltimore Ravens, who meaningfully transformed several areas of a team that has reached the playoffs each of the last three seasons.
But while the personnel changes mostly bode well for the Ravens’ Super Bowl aspirations, they pose a threat to several returning players. Those individuals can expect to face significant competition for their roles in the coming months and might ultimately find themselves on the roster bubble when final cuts arrive.
For years, the Ravens have thrown substantial resources at their receiving corps hoping some configuration might unlock their passing game. That trend continued in 2021 with the team signing veteran speedster Sammy Watkins from the Kansas City Chiefs while adding Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace in the 2021 NFL Draft. They join a group that already featured Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Devin Duvernay, and several talented tight ends.
That buildup leaves little room for Miles Boykin, a 2019 third-round pick who has flashed game-breaking talent but thus far proven unable to sustain success. The towering wideout has yet to finish with more than 33 catches and 266 yards in a given season and, with increased competition from Baltimore’s offseason additions as well as anticipated development from the team’s other young receivers, his path to a consistent role in the offseason appears more arduous than ever before.
Boykin almost certainly wouldn’t become a cut-down candidate if he fails to carve out a niche in the offense. Rather, the Ravens can realistically find a buyer for the talented 24-year-old wide receiver on the trade market. Boykin wouldn’t return the third-round pick the front office spent to acquire him in 2019, but he could net a useful Day 3 draft choice. Given Baltimore’s long track record of uncovering gems in the later rounds, such an outcome wouldn’t seem unpalatable.
While not the only source of the Ravens’ struggles in 2020, the center position contributed greatly to the team falling short of expectations. Matt Skura, the opening-day starter at the pivot, lost his job midway through the season due to inconsistent play and his replacement, Patrick Mekari, performed little better after taking over. The center woes reached their nadir in a divisional-round tilt with the Buffalo Bills when Mekari snapped the ball over Lamar Jackson’s head, resulting in the quarterback suffering a concussion during the recovery.
The Ravens seem committed to preventing a repeat of last season’s disaster at center. Fourth-year offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman has shifted over to center from left guard and, at least thus far, impressed at his new position during organized-team activities. “It doesn’t seem hard for him,” head coach John Harbaugh said of Bozeman’s work at center during OTAs. “He’s very comfortable in there. He’s making the calls. He’s moving very naturally as a center. He’s snapping the ball very well. I think that’s where we’re at.
“Moving forward, he’ll be the center, and then we’ll let guys compete from there. He’s our starting center today. We’ll see where it goes, but I have a lot of confidence in Bradley.”
That leaves Mekari in a somewhat precarious position. Though he played meaningful snaps at guard and tackle last season, he also has a more challenging path toward a starting job in 2021. The Ravens signed Kevin Zeitler and Alejandro Villanueva this offseason to take over at right guard and right tackle, respectively. With Ronnie Stanley returning from injury to serve as Jackson’s blindside protector, that leaves only the starting job at left guard clearly open for competition.
And Mekari might not have the inside track at that position. Ben Powers and Tyre Phillips, each of which possesses starting experience at guard, will vie for the job as could third-round pick Ben Cleveland. If Mekari doesn’t win the competition, he could become trade fodder or a casualty of final cuts.
Like Mekari, Andre Smith finds himself without a defined role and considerable competition for a roster spot along the offensive line. The Ravens originally signed Smith for their playoff run during the final stretch of the 2019 season and brought him back on a one-year deal for 2020. However, the veteran offensive tackle exercised his right to opt out of the season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Smith returns to Baltimore looking extremely vulnerable in terms of job security. Not only did he turn 34 earlier this year, but Smith also ranks no higher than the third tackle on the roster. More likely, the coaching staff views him as a challenge to second-year pro Tyre Phillips for the swing-tackle role. Smith, who has lined up almost exclusively at tackle during his career, doesn’t offer the positional flexibility of his younger teammates.
The Ravens won’t just cut Smith for the sake of going young. Useful offensive linemen remain scarce in the league and, despite his age, Smith can probably still hang on as a backup for another year or two. But the NFL remains a cruel business, and the team has invested plenty of resources into the O-line with an eye on going young. If the unit doesn’t suffer any major injuries during training camp and the preseason, Smith’s outlook in Baltimore doesn’t appear too promising.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at NFL.com, SB Nation, Sports Illustrated, and other outlets.