Middle Of O-Line Shaky Minus Departed Flynn
By Joe Platania
Today, professional football is all about speed, agility and flexibility -- but not the kind you're thinking about.
Teams need these qualities to maneuver quickly underneath a hard and fast salary cap so that the mix of drafted players and free agents can make them better in the offseason.
For now, the Ravens don't have much room for that. They entered the free agent signing period roughly $3 million under the $116 million cap, far less than anticipated despite the restructuring of numerous contracts, including those of tackle Jonathan Ogden and tight end Todd Heap. That's why Baltimore's name never came up when the first wave of free agents -- the signing period lasts until late July -- agreed to terms last weekend.
Miami, Houston, Kansas City, Carolina and the New York Giants may be suitors for center Mike Flynn, who was released to make room under the Ravens' salary cap.
Because of that pinch, the Ravens have to get flexible with their own players, such as those in the middle of the offensive line.
The team's transition to a smaller, more athletic line that can run and pass block with equal efficiency went through a few growing pains last year as the Ravens once again finished in the league's bottom third in total offense.
To improve that ranking, the center and guard spots are most crucial. They not only open holes for the tough yards running backs are supposed to get, they provide the last barrier to the defense's shortest route to the quarterback, a position with another whole set of issues unto itself.
With the steady development of guards Jason Brown and Ben Grubbs in 2007, it has long been believed those jobs would be well spoken for as the line gets younger. However, the release of 10-year center Mike Flynn throws several players under an uncertain cloud.
The trio of likely candidates to replace Flynn at center -- Brown, Grubbs and Chris Chester -- have combined to make one start at that position in the NFL.
Here's a look at the key participants in this drama and what could play out for them.
In his first training camp with the Ravens in 1997, Flynn was an undrafted free agent offensive lineman from Maine who labored under a hot Westminster sun as a quiet, anonymous rookie just trying to make the team.
One day, in the middle of that set of circumstances, Flynn looked over toward the fan barrier and saw a member of the Maine coaching staff who had traveled south to see him practice. It may have seemed like a rather innocuous moment. However, it was proof that not only was Flynn the kind of player that inspired belief in those around him, he was willing to work to reinforce that belief.
It's important to remember that Flynn was actually the right guard on the 2000 Super Bowl-winning team, playing alongside center Jeff Mitchell. He made the switch to the anchor spot after Mitchell left for the Carolina Panthers as a free agent.
Flynn's salary cap release last week leaves just five players remaining from the championship team: Ogden (who could announce his retirement in the spring), kicker Matt Stover, cornerback Chris McAlister, linebacker Ray Lewis and nose tackle Kelly Gregg.
However, Flynn's departure also leaves a question hanging in the air: Can he still play, and if so, for whom?
Flynn, who started 115 games in Baltimore, believes he can, and he does have options. Miami is rebuilding its offensive line and teams such as Houston, Kansas City, Carolina and the Super Bowl champion New York Giants have released interior linemen this offseason.
The 6-foot-3, 320-pound North Carolina graduate's name came up a lot before free agency began as one of the restricted free agents most likely to receive offer sheets from other teams.
But Brown isn't likely to go anywhere, given his durability and the lack of team-changing among restricted players. However, if he isn't changing teams, will he change positions?
Center would be a logical choice for Brown, who started there for three years and 36 straight games as a Tar Heel. Like Flynn, he proved adaptable to change and was called upon in 2006 when guard Edwin Mulitalo was lost for the season in early October.
Brown has a stout build and a good initial burst, giving him the kind of leverage he needs to move any defensive tackle off the ball in those first crucial post-snap moments.
But if he were to be moved away from left guard, it would create a yawning gap there that would have to be filled by either the little-used Ikechuku Ndukwe or backup right tackle Marshal Yanda, who started only four times as a guard while at Iowa.
The second-round pick in 2006 will be going into his third season in Baltimore as the epitome of what the Ravens are trying to accomplish up front.
The 6-foot-3, 305-pound Oklahoma product has the size and versatility needed at center, where one is asked to block the middle linebacker and just about everyone along the defensive line at one time or another when defensive stunts, twists and pulls on outside run plays are considered.
However, Chester's only start at center came last year in the 22-3 win over an outclassed St. Louis team in Week 6. It was a game in which the Ravens managed five field goals, 248 yards in total offense and a mere 14 first downs.
Later in the season, Chester proved vulnerable to blitzes and aggressive four-man rushes as teams were able to take short inside routes to the quarterback.
Chester will likely be given the first crack at the center's job in training camp.
It's a wonder that Grubbs, a big, quiet, easygoing type, hasn't acquired a nickname yet. But it would have to be "Big G" for a couple of reasons.
First, it's because an uppercase "G" is what is usually listed next to a player's name to indicate that he is a guard. It's also because a glance at the 6-foot-3, 315-pounder's resume would clearly show that Grubbs is most definitely a guard and nothing else.
At Auburn, Grubbs went through short-lived stints at defensive tackle and tight end before settling in at guard and playing 50 career games, starting the last 38 of them consecutively.
Grubbs is a key in making the Ravens a team that can run to both left and right sides with equal aplomb. With Ogden's presence on the left for the past 12 years, teams could prepare for the Ravens to run behind him, but Grubbs makes the Ravens an ambidextrous bunch.
Grubbs' Auburn career was spent on the left side, and it took a while for him to adjust to the different footwork necessary on the right. He has more experience than anyone to replace Brown on the left if needed, and he is a quick learner.
But, as in Brown's case, a move to center would create a gap that Yanda or someone else would have to fill, as the agility and flexibility needed to create a good football team are both constant and complex.
Issue 3.10: March 6, 2008