OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Let me know if you’ve heard this one before: the Baltimore Ravens lost an offensive lineman in free agency to one of the biggest contracts in NFL history.
It happened in 2016 with guard Kelechi Osemele. It happened in 2017 with tackle Rick Wagner. And it happened once again Friday, when Ryan Jensen set the financial benchmark for all centers.
Jensen signed a four-year, $42 million deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in one of the more remarkable paydays. He went from being a first-year, full-time starter for Baltimore to the highest paid center in the league.
This continues a frustrating trend for the Ravens, who watched another offensive lineman they’ve developed land a contract that they couldn’t come close to matching because of limited salary-cap space.
In the past three offseasons, Osemele, Wagner and Jensen combined for $67.9 million in guaranteed money.
In 2016, Osemele left Baltimore for a five-year, $58.5 million contract ($25.4 million guaranteed) from the Oakland Raiders. The $11.7 million per season average was tops for a guard at that time and ranks third now (behind Jacksonville’s Andrew Norwell and Cleveland’s Kevin Zeitler).
Last offseason, Wagner signed a five-year, $47.5 million deal ($20.5 million guaranteed) from the Detroit Lions. The $9.5 million per season average is second behind Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson.
Now, Jensen cashed in like no other center before him. His $10.5 million per year average topped Jacksonville’s Brandon Linder ($10.3 million).
While Osemele and Wagner were established starters before they earned big-money deals, Jensen was inactive for all 16 games during his rookie season after being a sixth-round pick in 2013 and was placed on the practice squad in 2014 after being released.
He was promoted to the active roster by the end of the 2014 season before starting a total of nine games in 2015 and 2016 at guard. Last season, Jensen seemed to be the fallback option at center after Jeremy Zuttah was traded to the San Francisco 49ers. The Ravens had conversations with free agent Nick Mangold and made Jensen compete with John Urschel during the spring offseason practices.
When Mangold didn’t sign after visiting the team and Urschel abruptly retired before the fist practice of training camp, Baltimore re-signed Zuttah in the latest move that the Ravens weren’t entirely sold on Jensen. But Jensen proved to be the best option and brought a nasty edge to the offense.
Jensen will always be remembered in Baltimore for going into full bodyguard mode in late October after Miami linebacker Kiko Alonso nailed a sliding Joe Flacco in the head so hard that the quarterback’s helmet flew off. Before Alonso could get off the ground, Jensen ran over, lunged forward and gave a two-handed shove to the linebacker. With Alonso on his back, Jensen pounced again and a right hand to the helmet forced off Alonso’s helmet.
If the Ravens had enough cap room to keep all these players they coached up, Baltimore would have one of the best and toughest offensive lines in the NFL: Ronnie Stanley at left tackle, Osemele at left guard, Jensen at center, Marshal Yanda at right guard and Rick Wagner at right tackle.
Instead of this continuity, the Ravens are looking to replace another offensive line draft pick who exceeded expectations. Baltimore could put Matt Skura, who started 12 games at right guard, at his natural position of center. There are questions about the lack of size with Skura, who is 6-foot-3, 313 pounds.
The Ravens could draft a center to replace Jensen. But this team hasn’t selected a center in the draft since Gino Gradkowski, a fourth-round pick in 2012 who had trouble with the physicality of the position.
Baltimore still had one of the better lines in the league last season, but the Ravens could have a special one if not for other teams luring their young blockers elsewhere.