Chester heads into camp as the starter

OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens called a somewhat unexpected audible when they unveiled their new-look offensive line during minicamp drills this spring. Instead of either incumbent Keydrick Vincent or first-round draft pick Ben Grubbs manning the right guard position, it was second-year lineman Chris Chester who joined the starters' huddle.

Vincent had been abruptly demoted and shifted behind Jason Brown at left guard while Grubbs worked in relief of Chester.

It wasn't a mere coincidental change in status. The coaching staff had simply judged that it was time for Chester, a second-round draft pick last year, to get his shot.

"We looked at the competition at right guard and we asked, ‘Who's our best right guard at this point?'" offensive line coach Chris Foerster said. "We made an evaluation and that's why Chris was inserted there. If we had felt that Chris was better at center or better at left guard, we would have considered starting him as one of our top five."

As the defending AFC North champions head into training camp in Westminster, Chester is atop the depth chart.

Team officials are optimistic that the mobile former University of Oklahoma tight end will perform at a high level.

They are hopeful that Chester will usher in a new era for the offensive line with his 4.8 speed and his ability to pull and lead sweeps to reach the second level and track down linebackers in the open field.

"I've always tried to use my physical abilities to put me in good situations," said Chester, who started four games last season and has put on about 10 pounds of muscle, mostly in his upper body. "That's something I pride myself on. I've always been told you don't have to be 350 pounds to be a good lineman."

Chester is still somewhat undersized at 6-foot-3, 305 pounds, but he's considered one of the quickest linemen in franchise history. He's also versatile enough to play center, and many in the organization regard that as his future home.

However, veteran Mike Flynn is entrenched at center.

The Ravens could eventually opt to shift Chester inside, but that will largely depend on Grubbs' development.

Baltimore drafted the former Auburn star with the 29th overall pick, acquiring a consensus All-American slightly larger than Chester and nearly as agile.

However, the Ravens don't plan to just hand Grubbs a starting position. He'll have to earn it.

"It's an open competition," Foerster said. "We put Ben at right guard because it's a position where we felt if there were injuries anywhere across the interior line, we felt he could slide into a spot if he wasn't already in a starting position.

"If at any point he becomes one of the best three interior players, we would insert him in the lineup. If he's not quite ready, if he doesn't make the conversion from college to the pros that quickly, then we have a season to groom him. He's a very talented player, as is Chris Chester and Jason Brown."

Grubbs graded out at over 90 percent in 30 of his starts and was penalized just four times in 2,331 plays at Auburn. He allowed just three sacks and seven quarterback pressures.

Sixteen of his blocks resulted in touchdowns last fall. Now, he has to prove himself at a higher level.

"I just want to show them that I know how to play the game," Grubbs said. "I'm a student of the game. It's crazy because I'm living a dream right now and it can't get any better. I'm just working to learn the system and make an impact."

The Ravens also have experienced reserve depth with Vincent, who's entering the final year of his contract and has made a speedy recovery from sports hernia surgery.

"I just do what the coaches tell me to do, it's not up to me," Vincent said. "It's a business. I'll play anywhere they tell me to play. I know what I can do when I'm healthy. I'll just keep chopping wood."

Regardless of whether the Ravens wind up with Chester or Grubbs at right guard, the line is definitely getting younger and will probably field at least three new starters.

The Ravens cut starting left guard Edwin Mulitalo, replacing him with Brown, didn't re-sign right tackle Tony Pashos and have installed third-year backup left tackle Adam Terry as the new starter on the right side.

"We've gotten real young real quick with a lot of good players," Foerster said. "There's a learning curve that goes on there. This group still has to come together as a unit. You love the interchangeable parts, but you want to get the parts set as soon as possible so they can start building that chemistry."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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