Prioritizing future in offseason leaves Ravens offensive line hurting in present

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The Ravens need a healthy Ronnie Stanley to do anything special in 2021, which is what makes his season-opening performance and absence from practices this week so concerning.

Despite practicing fully and not being listed on the Week 1 injury report, the Stanley we watched in Las Vegas on Monday looked nothing like the dominant blocker we’ve come to know as Baltimore’s best left tackle since Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden. Struggling against ex-Ravens defensive end Yannick Ngakoue while toughing it out through all 68 offensive snaps in his return from last year’s left ankle injury, the 27-year-old Stanley allowed eight hurries and a quarterback hit and graded 62nd out of 68 qualified offensive tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. When the 2016 first-round pick from Notre Dame has been at his best, that represents roughly a full season’s worth of miscues, which is what made his performance so jarring.

If Monday’s showing was the best Stanley can do at the moment, the Ravens have no choice but to shut him down and try to get him healthy. He’s too important to the big picture.

“I think when you take one of the best tackles in the league out of the lineup, it will affect [your game plan],” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “But we feel great about everybody that we have. These guys work hard every day, and any time somebody doesn’t play, it’s just another opportunity for somebody to shine. We’ll have to see how that goes, but Ronnie Stanley is a very valuable member for us. The great thing about it is that we have great depth.”

Roman and the Ravens are going to talk up the alternatives publicly, but we know the hard truth.

Making matters worse is knowing Stanley’s 2020 replacement at left tackle will be lining up for rival Kansas City on Sunday night. Of course, we’re talking about two-time Pro Bowl selection and former Ravens right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who was traded to the Chiefs in an April deal that prioritized future value and granted Brown’s wish to play on the left side. General manager Eric DeCosta sent Brown, the 58th overall pick in the 2021 draft, and a 2022 sixth-round choice in exchange for the 31st overall pick that became outside linebacker Odafe Oweh, the third-round choice used to take guard Ben Cleveland, a fourth-round pick that was used in another pick swap with Arizona, and a 2022 fifth-round selection.

Even if you disliked trading Brown to Kansas City, you could understand the long-term rationale with the 2018 third-round pick hitting free agency after 2021 and all but guaranteed not to re-sign after the Ravens awarded Stanley a five-year, $98.75 million extension last October. If Oweh blossoms into an impact edge defender, the Ravens will feel good about their decision. Cleveland eventually becoming a quality starter would make it even better.

But that doesn’t help the current offensive tackle picture for a team entering 2021 with Super Bowl aspirations, which is where we begin to scrutinize the trade.

First, the Ravens needed to have a very strong feel for the health of Stanley’s left ankle after multiple surgeries. Of course, making such an assessment in the midst of a lengthy rehabilitation in late April comes with no guarantees and details surrounding the current state of his surgically-repaired ankle are unclear, but there’s no way you trade your other Pro Bowl tackle if you’re not confident in Stanley returning to pre-injury form in 2021. Without the trade, Brown’s choice would have been to play out the final year of his rookie contract in Baltimore — with the potential to play left tackle if Stanley were unavailable — or to sit out, which wasn’t going to improve his value after just 12 NFL starts at left tackle counting the postseason.

Second, Baltimore needed to fortify its offensive tackle depth, which is what looms even larger at the moment. Days after the draft, DeCosta guaranteed $8 million to former Pittsburgh left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who played even worse than Stanley in his Ravens debut at right tackle on Monday. It’s been a difficult transition to the right side for a former Pro Bowl player the Steelers showed little interest in retaining after last season. And while it’s much easier said than done finding a suitable swing tackle in today’s NFL in which quality offensive line play is at a premium, it was evident in the spring and summer that the Ravens lacked a strong third option to move into a starting role if needed.

As a result, the Ravens are facing the possibility of moving Villanueva — who will turn 33 next week — back to left tackle after he spent all offseason working on the right side and inserting utility lineman Patrick Mekari at right tackle since 2020 third-round pick Tyre Phillips was lost to a knee injury in Week 1. Trusting that alignment to protect star quarterback Lamar Jackson from Chiefs defensive ends Chris Jones and Frank Clark is an unsettling proposition.

The Ravens also re-signed veteran Andre Smith to their practice squad this week and have undrafted rookies Adrian Ealy and Foster Sarell on their 16-man developmental squad, but none are suitable starting options for a team fancying itself a 2021 contender.

To be perfectly fair, the Ravens couldn’t have foreseen such an unfortunate injury to Stanley immediately after finalizing his lucrative extension, but the scenario playing out now is why some were so reluctant to trade Brown ahead of a season of high expectations. While many were excited about future assets that may prove fruitful, there was always great value to having the versatile fourth-year offensive tackle on the 2021 team.

Trading Brown was one thing, but preparing for life without him is where the Ravens seemingly fell short.