TAMPA, Fla. — When the Las Vegas Raiders released John Simpson in December last season, he wondered if he was still good enough to play in the NFL. He said he came into Ravens training camp this season with “zero confidence” but had an opportunity to compete for the starting job at left guard.
On Saturday, coach John Harbaugh named Simpson the starter.
“Now I feel like I’m back,” Simpson said, after the Ravens final preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He noted that how the other offensive linemen welcomed him to the group made him feel more comfortable than he had in recent memory and that he regained his confidence because of that comfortability.
“I just feel like I did what I could while I could, you know, and every opportunity that I had, I tried to take advantage of it, and I felt like I did,” Simpson said. “So I really appreciate Coach and everybody who trusted me in this position.”
Simpson has been one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL this preseason. He played in just two games but had the 13th-highest offensive grade (82.7) and allowed zero pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
The void at left guard was one of the Ravens’ biggest questions heading into training camp. Ben Powers held down the spot last season, and he evolved into one of the better guards in the NFL. But Powers bolted to Denver in free agency after fetching a four-year, $52 million contract. The position was expected to be a battle between Ben Cleveland and Simpson. But Sala Aumavae-Laulu, a sixth-round pick out of Oregon, inserted himself into the competition early. Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris called Aumavae-Laulu a “pleasant surprise.”
Since camp began, Harbaugh has made it clear it was a two-person race between Simpson and Aumavae-Laulu.
Through the first two weeks of camp, Aumavae-Laulu, with the team’s first unit, and then Simpson, began practicing with the first team. Harbaugh said they would rotate throughout camp, but Simpson never relinquished his spot. Simpson, heading into his fourth season, had shown he was much more equipped to be the starter.
“John deserves it,” Harbaugh said, adding that Simpson had a great camp and that he loved his physicality in practice.
Harbaugh said “it was pretty clear” who the starter would be. And that was apparent during Saturday night’s 26-20 loss to the Buccaneers, as Simpson sat out and Aumavae-Laulu struggled mightily.
On the Ravens second possession, Aumavae-Laulu gave up a sack and then a pressure that led to Johnson scrambling and being tackled. Linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, blew by him on both plays. Later in the night, defensive tackle William Gholston overpowered the 6-foot-5, 234-pound Aumavae-Laulu, pushing him back into quarterback Anthony Brown as the offensive line collapsed for a sack.
Still, Aumavae-Laulu’s struggles didn’t begin Saturday night. According to Pro Football Focus, he came into the game with the worst offensive rating of any guard (27.0) and the second-worst run-block rating (29.3). Ultimately, Aumavae-Laulu has still exceeded expectations, considering he was drafted in the sixth round and believed to have no shot at the starting left guard job. His play has fluctuated in the ways to be expected from a rookie drafted late.
“He’s done really well. He moves his feet well. He’s very physical at times,” Harbaugh said. “And then you get caught up with a guy. You’ve got to remember, this is the first time this guy is playing at this speed and this level of communication. I think the sky is the limit for him. He’s got a great future. He’s going to be a part of it this year. We need him ready to play soon.”
The Ravens have to cut their roster to 53 players on Tuesday. Aumavae-Laulu is almost certainly safe, and an injury to Simpson would throw him back into action. For that reason, Simpson will continue to help Aumavae-Laulu develop, he said, even as the rookie competes to take his job.
“He’s a great, great young, young rookie,” Simpson said. “He takes the coaching from Coach and he’ll try it and he works hard after practice. He’s like always been after it, and I think we’re gonna work great together. So that’s the relationship that we need, no bad blood between us. Between us it’s just love.”