As reporters huddled in the Ravens’ locker room Thursday afternoon, TV cameras shining a light on one of the team’s biggest mysteries, a chant broke out: “Ronnie! Ronnie! Ronnie!”
Ronnie Stanley smiled. The left tackle has spent much of the past two years out of the spotlight and in the headlines, his largely private recovery from two season-ending ankle injuries as closely watched as almost any Ravens storyline.
Speaking to local media for the first time in over a year, Stanley said Thursday that he feels “really good.” He participated fully in practice Wednesday and Thursday for the first time since returning to workouts in early September. His long-awaited season debut — and only his second game since November 2020 — could come in Sunday’s showdown against the Buffalo Bills.
“This could very possibly be the week,” Stanley said. “I’m very close, and we’ll talk it over with the rest of the staff and coaches and whatnot. And we’re going to make the best decision that’s best for the team.”
The question of when Stanley might return, and how the 2019 All-Pro might look when he does, has hung over the start of this Ravens season, just as it did over the start of last season. Stanley watched from the sideline in training camp and the preseason this summer. He was limited to two of three practices in each of the Ravens’ first three weeks of the regular season. He was ruled out of the Ravens’ first two road games and was inactive for their home opener in Week 2.
As injuries at the position have mounted, Stanley’s recovery and timetable have become even more scrutinized. Ja’Wuan James suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in Week 1. Patrick Mekari left the Ravens’ win Sunday over the New England Patriots with a sprained ankle and hasn’t practiced this week. Rookie Daniel Faalele, who finished the game protecting quarterback Lamar Jackson’s blind side despite never having played the position in college, is technically their fourth-string tackle.
Stanley on Thursday said watching injuries further destabilize the Ravens’ offensive line has been “very hard.” In 2021, free-agent signing Alejandro Villanueva struggled as Stanley’s replacement. On Sunday, Jackson was sacked four times in the first half. But Stanley said several times Thursday that he can’t rush his recovery.
“We want to make sure that I’m able to play and be here for the whole season,” Stanley said. “I think things are going really well, things are going according to plan. I want to be out there. I want to be out there as soon as I can. The whole organization has taken this approach and we’re all on the same page about it, making sure I’m ready to go when I do get out there. I’m itching to get out there with my teammates, and I’m really close.”
Coach John Harbaugh indicated last week that Stanley’s return was nearing, calling him “kind of week-to-week, day-to-day-ish” and saying that he was in “maybe the best shape that I’ve seen him in some ways since he’s been here.” On Wednesday, Harbaugh reiterated that the Ravens wouldn’t call on Stanley to play if he didn’t consider himself ready.
“We’re not going to want him to go out there if he doesn’t feel like he’s going to be good, if he’s [not] going to be ready to go,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a priority to go out there and be at his best when he comes back. At the same time, he’s going to have to jump in at some point, so it could be this week. We’ll just have to see. He practiced quite a bit [Wednesday], and we’ll see where it’s at now, and then [Thursday], then Friday and make a decision.”
Stanley said the Ravens were managing his rehabilitation “the right way.” He said he feels “way better” than he did before the Ravens’ 2021 season opener against the Las Vegas Raiders, when he allowed nine quarterback pressures in just 40 pass-block snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Stanley never returned to practice last year, and the team announced in October that he would undergo season-ending ankle surgery for the second straight year, believed to be his third operation on the joint. Stanley said Thursday that he also underwent a separate “major” lower-body operation. He declined to offer further details.
“I think that’s why the whole organization was taking this approach to make sure that I can be out there and not play one game, and be out the rest of the season,” he said. “What happened last year was just very telling to what we’re doing this year and this approach that we’re taking bringing me back. Like I said, I’m very close.”
Stanley said he’s “confident that I’m going to be the Ronnie Stanley that I know I can be,” and quickly added: “I still don’t feel like I’ve played to my full potential.” In 2019, his fourth season in Baltimore, he earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors for the first time. According to PFF, Stanley didn’t allow a sack and gave up just six quarterback pressures in 16 games that season, helping power a passing game that finished the season as one of the NFL’s most efficient.
On Oct. 30, 2020, Stanley signed a five-year, $98.8 million contract extension that made him one of the NFL’s highest-paid offensive linemen. Two days later, he was carted off the field with a season-ending ankle injury after Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt inadvertently rolled into the back of Stanley’s left leg. At the time, Stanley led all NFL tackles in pass-block win rate and was fifth in run-block win rate, according to ESPN.
Stanley said Thursday that he was “very optimistic” about “getting back to where I want to be.” His practice repetitions would tell him when he was ready, when he felt flexible enough. If that’s Sunday, Stanley could have his hands full. The Bills are fifth in the NFL in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate and have maybe the league’s best group of edge rushers, headlined by Von Miller (two sacks) and Greg Rousseau (3 1/2 sacks).
With a successful return — whether it’s this weekend, next weekend or some point later this season — Stanley would quiet the speculation about where his career’s headed. After two difficult years in Baltimore, he said he’s “in a really good place.”
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“I really think he’s made some great strides,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Thursday. “He looks explosive. I mean, everybody’s joking with him that he’s got fresh legs. But he’s looking explosive, as good as I’ve seen him look. You know, he hadn’t played ball in about two years, though, so there’ll be definitely an acclimation period for him, which we’re going through now. Love where he’s at. I was really encouraged by how he’s looking. I’d say arrow up, all the way.”
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Line: Bills by 3