The picture Ronnie Stanley paints isn’t exactly the stuff of myth and legend. In fact, it’s pretty vanilla.
What does it take to be a great NFL left tackle?
It’s a question the second-year Raven has thought a lot about. It’s driven him to scrutinize and seek fellowship with the best contemporary examples — Tyron Smith of the Dallas Cowboys, Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns, Trent Williams of the Washington Redskins.
And what does he see when he examines these nimble-footed mammoths?
“You look at the personality of those guys and they’re all good guys who have their head on their shoulders,” says Stanley, the Ravens’ highest overall pick since 2000. “Just humble dudes who set a good example.”
Well, it actually makes sense given the nature of the gig. Stanley and the men he aspires to resemble devote their professional lives to making sure nothing goes wrong. They’re patient craftsmen, not destroyers. They take a step back to start most plays.
Sure, the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Stanley would tower over you and likely everyone you know. But he’s essentially a mellow guy trying to become the best at what he does in increments.
“It’s a day-at-a-time process,” he says. “I know that’s what everyone says, but it truly is. Every day, you come out and pick one thing, and you try to get better at that one thing. Everything is not going to get fixed in one day, and it takes a mature person to understand that.”
Though he’ll probably never blare his goals to the world, Stanley yearns to be great. He envisioned becoming a first-round NFL pick long before it came to pass. And he says that was merely the first box he wanted to check on a long list.
The Ravens need him to get there, perhaps sooner rather than later, given that he’s protecting quarterback Joe Flacco’s suddenly fragile back. Stanley will also have to prove he can remain healthy after he missed part of his rookie season with a foot injury and a chunk of this year’s preseason because of a knee injury.
“He had a really good rookie year,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh says. “But for whom much is given, much is required and expected. We expect him to be a great player.”
The good news is that many of the great left tackles of the past 25 years took a significant step forward in either their second or third years in the league. Jonathan Ogden, the man whose Ravens legacy Stanley is chasing, first made the Pro Bowl in his second season. So did Ogden’s contemporaries, Tony Boselli and Willie Roaf. Recent Hall of Fame inductees Orlando Pace and Walter Jones made it in year three.
No matter how gifted a player is, that’s how long it takes for the rhythm of an NFL passing attack to feel like second nature, for the speed of the world’s greatest pass rushers to become less shocking.
“The difference is you’re doing it against NFL players,” Stanley says, contrasting his experience as an All-American at Notre Dame to his rookie season with the Ravens. “You can dominate college players and then come to the NFL and not do anything.”
Yes, if the history of top-shelf NFL left tackles is instructive, this season will tell us much about what caliber of player Stanley will ultimately be.
Ravens coaches believe he can be a Pro Bowl candidate in short order, but they also view him very much as a work in progress. It’s not that he needs to get a lot better at one thing. He needs to get a little better at everything.
“I think that is exactly what he has in mind every day,” says the team’s senior offensive assistant, Greg Roman, who’s known as a top architect of run-blocking schemes. “I think as an offensive lineman, the more you do it, the better you are going to get. There are so many looks defenses give you now, so Ronnie is really working on sharpening up his fundamentals and defensive recognition. To list one thing, I do not know if that is realistic. I think Ronnie is a good football player. He played well last year, and he is looking to really just sharpen all his tools.”
If he wants to study a blocker who methodically built a Pro Bowl career, Stanley need only look to the other side of the Ravens line, where Marshal Yanda plies his trade. Yanda’s advice to his young teammate aligns closely with Stanley’s philosophy.
“Working at your craft, every single day, no matter what job you have,” Yanda says when asked the key to his development. “I feel like the guys that continue to take that approach, every single day, get better. They have to attack it, because there are a lot of days of football. The job that we have, it’s hard to want to get better; it’s hard that your body feels like crap and you just don’t want to get better. The guys that grind and take that approach, that want to work on their craft every single day, they get better.”
Stanley’s evolution was already evident within the course of last season. For example, the first time he started against the Pittsburgh Steelers in early November, veteran pass rusher James Harrison abused him, accumulating five tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. The second time they faced off, seven weeks later, Harrison did not get to Flacco at all.
“It’s still just the second time,” he says. “But it definitely felt a little more comfortable than the first time. You definitely had more of a feeling of, ‘Oh, he does this and he’s good at that.’ ”
Such efforts were typical for Stanley late in the season. He entered that blissful place sought by all offensive linemen in which no one much talked about him because so little went wrong on his side of the field. Ogden spent much of his 12-year career in that zone, and the Ravens have scrambled for a long-term solution at left tackle ever since he retired in 2008. They used the No. 6 pick in the loaded 2016 draft on Stanley because they believed he was the man for the job.
Ogden and Stanley both have homes in Las Vegas, and they connected several times in the offseason. The Hall of Fame tackle’s advice was the same as Harbaugh and Roman’s: Keep refining every aspect of your game.
“He said just keep doing what I’m doing,” Stanley says.
Because of academic and social obligations, the college version of Stanley never devoted an entire offseason to resting and building up his body. He finally got to do that this year and says he never felt better going into a training camp.
Fans will also probably see more of his personality this season.
“I’m a lot more comfortable with my surroundings, who I’m around and just being myself,” he says. “Before, I was real quiet. I didn’t feel awkward or anything, but I knew how to be a good rookie, just go out there and not say anything. That’s what I expect of rookies as well. But now I’m a lot more free-spirited. It’s a lot more fun.”
Of course, the goal, as always, is to play so well that people forget he’s out there, keeping Flacco safe. And that’s a pursuit for scholars, not titans.
“If you don’t have your technique, strength and athleticism can only get you so far,” Stanley says. “A lot of people think it’s just a physical position. That’s not surprising. But yeah, there’s a lot more to it.”