Ever since Lawrence Taylor snapped Joe Theissman in two, the left tackle position in the NFL has been viewed differently. The significance of protecting the quarterback’s blindside in a passing league cannot be overstated, even by those monstrous contracts that guys like Robert Gallery, Jason Smith and Andre Smith have signed.
Those three guys got paid well but never lived up to their potential as pass protectors. The risk-reward scenario that comes with signing an unproven left tackle is similar to that of signing a quarterback.
The star performances of Joe Thomas, Jake Long and Ryan Clady have been huge for their respective teams. In 2009, the Baltimore Ravens thought that they had hit on their next stud left tackle.
Michael Oher’s storybook (and I really mean storybook) journey to the NFL looked to have a fairytale ending. Oher starred for the team as a rookie playing on the right-hand side of the offensive line. He was one of the best rookies of his class and looked to be the most astute selection as the fourth tackle taken that year.
Oher frequently mauled his opposition while the highlight of his season came late in the year when he slid to left tackle. Oher took over from the injured Jared Gaither for three of the team’s final four match-ups, the last of which against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
Oher lined up across from the reigning NFL defensive player of the year James Harrison. Harrison did manage to notch a fumble, but he did not have a single sack in the game. Oher was a staple in the running game that day as Ray Rice ran for over 140 yards. No other back has gone over 100 yards against the Steelers since that day.
However, Oher’s stint on the left side came to an end, and when he returned there at the start of last season, he did not look comfortable.
Jared Gaither missed the whole of last year and part of the year before because of a back injury and a neck injury, respectively. Gaither’s proneness to injury, coupled with his unhappiness at a lack of a contract offer heading into the season, made him a dispensable piece.
The Ravens for so long had Jonathan Ogden, potentially the best left tackle ever, manning their blindside, and while Gaither hadn’t been anything close to him, he was made to look a lot closer by Oher last year, who was responsible for seven sacks with two holding penalties and eight false starts.
In contrast, Jared Gaither gave up only eight sacks in his last two seasons played (2008 and 2009). During his career that spans three seasons, he has given up 9.5 sacks, six holding penalties and 11 false starts.
Gaither’s absence was reflected in the team’s performance as a unit last year. The Ravens ran the ball 487 times last year opposed to 468 the previous year. Joe Flacco had 10 less attempts while being sacked four more times. He was hit 79 times, which is seven times more than in 2009.
It wasn’t only pass protection that suffered from the loss of Gaither. While Baltimore should have been a better running threat, forcing other teams to focus on a renewed passing game, it never materialized.
Ray Rice had 53 more carries last season than he had in 2009 but averaged 1.3 less yards per rush. Rice suffered because of poor offensive line play ahead of him. He did have minor injuries throughout the year, but that did not prevent him from have over 300 carries (307 to be exact).
Returning Michael Oher to the right-hand side and plugging in Jared Gaither on the left would solve many of the team’s problems from last year.
Gaither isn’t the only option for the team. However, after drafting Jimmy Smith in the first round of the recent NFL draft, the team did not take a tackle until the third round.
Jah Reid isn’t likely to play as a rookie since the team cannot wait around for a rookie to develop in such a pivotal area.
The Ravens’ window is closing. There is no doubt about that. Defensively the team’s primary playmakers are all in their 30s as Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are in their final years. Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata remain unique talents but without Reed and Lewis the team will struggle.
The Ravens may be adverse to paying Jared Gaither big money because of questions surrounding his health. However, this should be overlooked for the opportunity to win now. The team should look at the Boston Celtics’ recent trade of Kendrick Perkins and use that to realize that sometimes it’s right not to worry about the future.
The Ravens have other options outside of Gaither with Matt Light and Jermon Bushrod hitting free agency. Light, however, is 32 and likely will return to the Patriots as a stop gap ahead of Nate Solder. Bushrod is in a similar position with the Saints.
Gaither does not have the same leverage that he once had with the NFL as a whole. His injury history will turn many teams off while the league’s uncertainty over the new CBA rules could make him a restricted free agent once again.
Gaither himself was quoted in the Carroll County Times, that he would “would love to start and end [his] career in the same place.”
His return makes a lot of sense for the Ravens. He has proven before that he can handle the responsibilities of being a left tackle on a playoff team at only 26 years of age. The risk-reward of signing Gaither to a big contract for the next three to four years is heavily in the Ravens’ favor.
If he stays healthy, he can be a stud left tackle for the team over the next five to eight years.
Gaither’s attitude remains a question mark, but at the end of the day, it’s difficult to find that kind of talent in such a key role.
If the team can accept an unproven player with as many character concerns as Jimmy Smith, why shouldn’t they look at a proven player with less difficulties?
The pressure may be on Joe Flacco to carry the offense next season, but defenses won’t be putting much pressure on him with Gaither back in the fold.
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