Ronnie Stanley entered his fourth season in the NFL regarded as a quality left tackle, overcoming the typical bumps and bruises and occasional growing pains that come with the position.
With two games left in the regular season, the Ravens’ first-round draft pick in 2016 has elevated his play to become one of the league’s top left tackles, cemented by Tuesday night’s selection as a Pro Bowl starter.
The everlasting story of the 2019 NFL season, the league’s centennial celebration, will likely be the emergence of second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, whose play this year is certain to be capped by a Most Valuable Player award.
But Jackson’s stellar season can be traced to the play of his offensive line, led by Stanley’s rise.
This season, Stanley has been graded by Pro Football Focus as the league’s best pass blocker, putting together one of the greatest seasons by a lineman since the scouting website began grading players in 2006.
For Stanley, it started in the offseason, reverting to the technique he used to become one of the top tackles in college football at Notre Dame.
“That’s just how I felt like I played my best football, using those types of techniques,” Stanley said Thursday before the team’s practice. “Going back to that, I just try to get back to those fundamentals that I knew and really stick to that and just try to get better. I knew it was going to be worse before it got better, so I just stuck with it and kept working, kept tweaking, and I’m still trying to tweak and get better at it to this day.”
Judging an offensive linemen’s play by number of sacks allowed can often be misleading. Success or failure in pass protection is as dependent on the quarterback as the linemen.
Pressures allowed is a more accurate metric, and Stanley has excelled in that area. According to Pro Football Focus, Stanley has allowed six pressures in 13 games (Stanley missed the team’s 42-21 win over the New York Jets last Thursday with a concussion) on 434 pass-blocking snaps.
In ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate metric, which measures how often linemen can sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer, Stanley ranks fourth in the NFL at 94%. Right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. ranks sixth, at 93%.
Part of Stanley’s success can be attributed to the nature of the Ravens offense, which is running the ball at a historic rate, along with Jackson, whose ability to elude defenders in the pocket is unmatched.
But Stanley’s gradual improvement over the years, and taking his play to another level this season, has played a pivotal role in the offense’s success.
“It’s kind of like a jump shot,” Brown said. “Pass protection footwork, the way we use our hands and feet, everybody is so different. You have to do what works best for you and what’s most comfortable.”
Stanley starred as a two-sport athlete in football and basketball at powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas. Similar to NFL greats Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, who also played basketball before launching their NFL careers, many of the traits required to excel on the court translated to the field.
“I was a forward, center, but I didn’t have the height to play center,” Stanley said. “I was a little too big to be a forward. I would have had to cut weight to be a basketball player. I was good at it. I had the skill set, but it was always a weight thing if I wanted to move up or play down. ... The coordination, understanding where you are in space, how you’re moving, it really helps.”
Stanley opted to continue his football career at Notre Dame, which has a penchant for sending quality offensive linemen to the NFL. After four seasons, the final of which Stanley was voted a consensus All-American, he entered the NFL draft and the Ravens selected him with the No. 6 overall pick.
In his first three seasons, Stanley became a Day One blindside protector for Joe Flacco and some of the league’s most pass-heavy offenses. As is customary for left tackles, Stanley drew matchups against premier edge rushers, many of whom possess an array of crafty moves.
Inconsistencies for a young player, as well as nagging injuries — Stanley missed six games in his first three seasons — forced Stanley to go “through the adversities like trial by fire,” guard Marshal Yanda said.
“Trying to make a name for yourself in this league is very competitive,” Stanley said. “There’s so many guys, top-tier left tackles in this league. The margin for error is a lot smaller.”
This season, Stanley has played in virtually every meaningful snap for an offense averaging 33.7 points per game, tops in the NFL.
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In a league that has placed more value in the left tackle position, Stanley, 25, has positioned himself for a potential record-breaking contract in the offseason.
Days before the regular season began, the Houston Texans acquired left tackle Laremy Tunsil, picked seven slots after Stanley, from the Miami Dolphins for a treasure trove of assets that included two first-round picks.
Tunsil, like Stanley, will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2020 season.
The Philadelphia Eagles recently gave right tackle Lane Johnson a four-year, $72 million extension, making him the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league.
As the Ravens near Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns — a win would clinch home-field advantage for the first time in franchise history — Stanley is approaching the game, along with each play, one step at a time — just like his footwork.
“A game like Ronnie, he’s got a game where it’s not necessarily easy to mimic, but it’s a base set of fundamentals that coaches do teach,” Brown said. “At Notre Dame, there’s stuff that you’re seeing now with his footwork and hands and his explosiveness and stance, it’s very similar to what he used in college.
"[Stanley] is the best left tackle in the game right now and I think his production shows that, especially this year. The hardest part about our position is just keeping the consistency over the years.”
An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect year for when Ronnie Stanley was drafted. The Sun regrets the erro.