Despite having so much going for them while sporting the AFC’s best record, the Ravens have a problem.
They hope the bye week will offer the solution — at least for the short term.
To maximize its Super Bowl potential, Baltimore needs a better version of left tackle Ronnie Stanley than we’ve seen so far in 2023. Whether it’s more the effect of a right knee injured in the season opener or the cumulative impact of injuries derailing a promising career, the 29-year-old hasn’t been close to the dominant left tackle he once was or even as good as he was last year returning from the serious left ankle injury that required multiple surgeries and sidelined him for nearly two full seasons.
For now, the Ravens hope the 2019 All-Pro selection getting his right knee in better condition over the bye will pay dividends for the remainder of the season with tough opponents looming even before the anticipated playoff run.
“I do think that it’s going to be beneficial for him. It’s something that’s been … It’s not been great,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I think he’d probably be the first person to tell you it’s not been great. He needs to get stronger and get his technique right. He needs to get out at practice and keep growing back into [form].
“He’s a great player. We want to get him back into playing at that high level.”
In last Sunday’s win over the Los Angeles Chargers, Stanley surrendered six pressures and struggled mightily against seven-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Khalil Mack. And while there’s no shame in having a tough night against a potential Hall of Famer, the 2016 first-round pick out of Notre Dame is in the midst of the worst season of his career.
Though certainly not the be-all and end-all of evaluative measures, Pro Football Focus has graded Stanley 43rd among 84 qualified offensive tackles and charged him with allowing four sacks — already a career high — and 21 pressures, which would mark the third-highest single-season total of his career in just eight games. For comparison, PFF has graded understudy Patrick Mekari 36th among qualified tackles, but the versatile backup has played better at right tackle filling in for Morgan Moses over three starts than playing left tackle. Stanley’s 2023 PFF grade of 63.7 is the lowest of his career after his 69.4 mark a year ago had been a career low if excluding his 2021 season that consisted of only one game.
Stanley sat out three games after having his right knee rolled up in the fourth quarter of the Week 1 over Houston and then had the same knee rolled up in the final period of the Week 10 loss to Cleveland. To his credit, the 6-foot-6, 315-pound lineman returned to action after missing just one game this time around, but his showing against the Chargers makes one wonder if that was the best decision, especially ahead of the bye. For Stanley, the right knee problem still pales in comparison to the left ankle originally injured in 2020, which cost him 33 games in the regular season and playoffs over three years.
“I look at it as a blessing to have things like that happen to me and then look at it, and nothing major has come out of it,” said Stanley about his right knee issues last Friday. “That’s a blessing for me. I’ve been down the other road before, so I’m definitely looking on the positive side.”
To be clear, Stanley remains the Ravens’ best option at left tackle with the highest ceiling and hasn’t been all bad this season, but such a question even being posed is a problem as he carries the highest salary cap number on the team in 2023 ($23.668 million) and still has two seasons remaining on a five-year, $98.75 million contract extension signed two days before he suffered the ankle injury in 2020. Of course, general manager Eric DeCosta had no way of predicting what would happen to the 2019 Pro Bowl left tackle and one certainly feels for Stanley as a competitor, but how he finishes this season could go a long way in determining how the Ravens proceed at left tackle this offseason.
With superstar quarterback Lamar Jackson’s record-setting five-year, $260 million contract now a reality from a roster-building standpoint, the Ravens need appropriate production from their highest-paid players — particularly one protecting Jackson’s blind side. Even Stanley’s biggest proponents would acknowledge he’s not playing close to the level of a $20 million left tackle, and with the veteran turning 30 in March, the probability of him staying healthy and returning to Pro Bowl form isn’t in his favor.
Even if Stanley finishes the season on a high note, you’d have to think DeCosta and the front office are pondering a succession plan at left tackle as he’s scheduled to count for more than $26 million against the salary cap in each of the next two seasons. However, releasing him prior to June 1 next year would trigger nearly $18 million in dead money and just over $8 million in savings on the 2024 cap, so the best-case scenario would be Stanley playing at least one more season — perhaps on a reworked contract — with designs of drafting the left tackle of the future next April.
But that plan still requires a better version of Stanley showing up for December and January. In the meantime, the Ravens are expressing hope that the solution is as simple as some extra for Stanley’s knee. Both parties have much riding on such an outcome.
“Certainly, he would probably say it’s not at where [he wants] his knee to be, but he’s continued to work through it,” offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. “Each week, it’s getting stronger, and he’s been able to fight through it. It would be more of a question for Ronnie than it would be for us. I give him a lot of credit for getting out there and continuing to play.”