Sweat cascaded from Ja’Wuan James’ forehead as he prepared to field questions from reporters after two hours of practicing in the ponderous heat Thursday.
Even this bit of summer drudgery felt satisfying to the Ravens tackle after three seasons of absence defined by hobbling injuries, a pandemic and a contentious breakup with his previous team.
Asked how badly he wants to be a normal, every-week football player again, James laughed. “It’s been a journey,” he said. “But we’re here right now.”
Four years after he played his last full NFL season, James, 30, finds himself as perhaps the essential insurance policy on the Ravens roster, their hedge against the possibility of another injury-marred season from $98.75 million left tackle Ronnie Stanley.
“I can’t wait to see him in a game,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He hasn’t played football in a while, so to see him out there with the physicality is going to be important … and really important for him.”
The unavoidable number when discussing James’ recent career is three — his total games played since he signed a four-year, $51 million deal with the Denver Broncos in March 2019.
A knee injury limited him to 63 snaps in his first year in Denver, and he opted out of the 2020 season after watching COVID-19 send multiple family members to the hospital. The next spring, James tore his Achilles tendon during a workout away from Denver’s facility, prompting the Broncos to release him and refuse to pay his $10 million salary for 2021.
James filed a $15 million grievance against the team, and his case became exhibit No. 1 in a dispute between the league and the NFL Players Association over how to designate injuries suffered during private workouts. The league issued a memo saying such injuries are “non-football” and would generally not trigger contract guarantees. The union replied with a statement calling the policy a “gutless” attempt to scare players into spending more time at team facilities.
The Ravens, meanwhile, swooped in to sign James, an above-average starting tackle when healthy, to a two-year deal with just $500,000 guaranteed. They knew he probably would not play in 2021 but saw him as a potential asset for 2022.
James declined to discuss the specifics of his exit from Denver, saying he’s interested only in looking forward. “Leave the past in the past,” he said.
He described his recovery from Achilles surgery as a tedious, lonely time. “It’s a slow process, a very slow process,” he said. “You’ve got to build a lot of strength. You’ve got to take your time, sit down for a while.”
He started practicing with the Ravens toward the end of last season, work that helped him acclimate to his teammates and coordinator Greg Roman’s offense. But he said he still needed more time to feel confident in his health.
Fellow tackle Morgan Moses, who was drafted the same year as James, said it’s no easy thing to come back after years away from the NFL routine. “It’s like relearning how to play football all again,” he said.
When he began to gear up in spring, James faced another curveball; the Ravens wanted him to play left tackle, something he had not done regularly since his senior year in high school.
With Stanley still on the physically-unable-to-perform list as he recovers from ankle surgery, James has taken most of the first-team reps protecting Lamar Jackson’s blind side in training camp. He appears to be the No. 1 option to step in if Stanley’s injury keeps him out of games, with Moses the team’s projected starter on the right side.
James is lean and moving well, though Roman said he still needs time to regain his football legs.
“He’s moving over to the left side; he’s acclimating to it [and] getting better every day,” Roman said. “Ja’Wuan has got a lot of talent, and we’re really fortunate to have him. For him, though, having not played a year, we fully expect there to be a slight acclimation period for him as he works himself back into tiptop playing condition.”
A 2014 first-round pick who started 62 games in five seasons with the Miami Dolphins, James seemed to enter his prime in the last year of his rookie contract, when he allowed a career-low 26 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Coaches praised his unusual bend and flexibility for a 6-foot-6 tackle, and he was one of the top linemen on the free agent market going into the 2019 season. Then, he signed his ill-fated deal with the Broncos.
Three years and a major injury later, Ravens coaches say James hasn’t any of the physical ability that made him the 19th overall pick out of Tennessee.
“I saw that when I worked him out many years ago; I went to Tennessee when he was coming out,” offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris said. “He was very athletic then, and he’s still athletic now and very coachable.”
The Ravens hope James’ natural athleticism will ease his transition to the left side. At this time last year, they watched veteran tackle Alejandro Villanueva struggle on the right side after spending years on the left. It’s not an easy switch to flip, even for experienced, talented players.
“It’s like you’re writing right-handed all the time, and now, all of a sudden, you’re starting to write left-handed,” D’Alessandris said. “It’s all motor skills — development of motor skills — and being comfortable doing it one way. But he’s in the process of working at it, and he’s athletic enough to do it, so I think his progress has been very good so far.”
Harbaugh acknowledged that James would probably be happier on his familiar side, “but sometimes necessity is the mother of invention,” he said.
James has impressed Moses with his composure in the face of a new assignment: “He doesn’t get flustered out there. That’s what you have to be as a tackle; you want a guy that on third down, you know he’s going to be there. He’s going to be locked in.”
James laughed, recalling how a former line coach described switching sides as “trying to wipe your butt with your other hand.” His hips and feet still feel odd when he fires off from his unfamiliar position.
“I’m not going to lie; it was frustrating in the spring,” he said. “Coming back for the first time in years, I wanted to be at my best. This is a new challenge, but I’m definitely embracing it. It’s an opportunity.”
Preseason, Week 1
Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
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