James Hurst admitted there was disappointment when he didn’t win the Ravens starting left guard job after an open competition this past summer. But the six-year veteran spent no time sulking, instead embracing his role as the team’s top reserve lineman, a utility player of sorts who could fill in virtually anywhere on the line if necessary.
That became necessary against the New York Jets Dec. 12, and Hurst delivered a strong performance starting at left tackle in place of Ronnie Stanley, who was out with a concussion.
The Ravens (12-2) rolled past the Jets, 42-21, for their 10th straight win, wrapping up their second straight AFC North title in the process.
Stanley has been playing at a Pro Bowl level this year, ranked No. 4 overall and No. 1 in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus. But if there was a dropoff to Hurst, it wasn’t noticeable. The Ravens gashed the Jets’ No.2-ranked run defense for 218 yards, and the Ravens were sacked once on 25 pass plays.
“I felt like he played well,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I’m looking forward to seeing the tape on James. … I didn’t see any problems, which is good for an offensive lineman.”
That was the 43rd start of Hurst’s career, but his first at left tackle since he filled in for Stanley once in the 2017 season. Last season, Hurst started the first six games at right tackle and the final four at left guard, missing six midseason games with a back injury. In his career, he has made 19 starts at left guard, 15 at left tackle, seven at right tackle and two as an extra tight end in “jumbo” packages.
That versatility is one reason the Ravens re-signed Hurst to a four-year, $17.5 million deal just before he hit free agency in 2018. Hurst originally made the Ravens as an undrafted rookie out of North Carolina in 2014.
Hurst had started 15 games at guard in 2017 before signing his new deal, and he was a contender for the starting left guard spot again this summer. Alex Lewis and Jermaine Eluemunor both failed to win the job and were traded, but instead of Hurst, the Ravens turned to second-year player Bradley Bozeman, relegating Hurst to a backup role.
“At some point reality sets in, and I didn’t win a starting job, and that’s obviously a disappointment at the moment,” Hurst said, “but you gotta move on. You’ve got to be the best player at whatever position you’re asked to [play]. I was asked to be the swing tackle, so I locked in and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to be the best at this position or these two positions that I can be.”
Until center Matt Skura went down with an injury in Week 12, the Ravens had started the same offensive line group all season. Hurst had been limited to a few snaps as a jumbo tight end or during garbage time at the end of a few blowouts.
Hurst acknowledged that it has been a challenge to stay sharp with limited reps in practice, but he continues to works weekly with offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris to stay ready.
“It’s a long season,” Hurst said, wearing his new AFC North championship T-shirt. “The weeks go on, and you don’t get any reps. It’s tough to stay locked in, but that’s part of my job, being the next tackle in. You gotta stay sharp and you gotta be ready for this exact moment. I’m really excited I got the opportunity and I feel pretty good about it.”
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