Ja'Wuan James is simply glad to be playing again, regardless of the position.
A right tackle since he entered the NFL in 2014, James has been at left tackle during Ravens training camp with All-Pro Ronnie Stanley still rehabbing his ankle. It's been an adjustment, but after sitting out both 2020 (COVID-19 concerns) and the 2021 seasons (torn Achilles), James is grateful to be playing again.
"It's been a journey, but we're here right now, and I'm taking it a day at a time," James said. "This is a new challenge, but I'm definitely embracing it."
James has a unique way of describing the adjustment to left tackle, a position he hasn't played regularly since high school.
"One of my O-line coaches explained it as trying to wipe your butt with your other hand," James said. "Like, that's how it is. For me, it's just the changing of your hips – I've been a certain way for so long – your kick foot and stuff like that. But it's a challenge that I'm embracing."
Baltimore shored up its right tackle position by signing Morgan Moses during free agency. But the Ravens needed someone to take reps at left tackle until Stanley returns and be his backup during the season. James has looked solid working off the rust after his long absence.
James' recent run of tough luck began in 2019, when he played just three games for the Broncos after suffering a knee injury. Then after opting out of the 2020 season, James tore his Achilles while training away from the Broncos' facility in May of 2021, and Denver released him a week later. James had inked a four-year, $51 million deal with Denver.
The Ravens signed James in June of last year, but he wasn't close to being ready for action. It was essentially a sign and stash. After months of rehab, James returned to the practice field late last season. He wasn't ready to return, but being around his Ravens teammates last year helped him get acclimated.
"When I signed here, that's what they talked about – getting the chance to come in, build some camaraderie with the O-line, learn some of the plays ahead of time, so when we got to this phase, it wouldn't be like I was a fresh face or just [starting] to get to know the guys [and] getting to know the plays," James said.
"Part of that plan was, 'Hey, let's get you out here in pads, let's get you hitting, let's get you moving around. If you're ready, you're ready, if you're not, you're not.' They didn't want to rush anything; I didn't want to rush anything. I wanted to come back full strength on my Achilles."
Head Coach John Harbaugh has been impressed with how James has gotten up speed after his long absence. Some of the training camp days have been hot and demanding, but James hasn't looked fatigued or rusty. It sounded as if James could be in line for some action when the Ravens host the Titans in their preseason opener.
"We need a left tackle, and for him to go over there and do that, and do a good job, is really important," Harbaugh said. "I can't wait to see him in the game. He hasn't played football for a while, so to see him out there with the physicality is going to be really important."
Drafted by the Dolphins as the 19th-overall pick in 2014, James spent five seasons as a starter in Miami and believes he can help the Ravens in whatever role he assumes. His new teammates agree, and Moses has been impressed with James' approach.
"He doesn't get flustered out there, and that's what you want as a tackle," Moses said. "You want a guy that on third down, you know he's going to be there, he's going to be locked in. And I think for him, it's getting back to the opportunity to play football.
"I think he said something crazy like this was his first time in pads in like two years or something like that. It's like re-learning how to play football all again. But he's doing a great job."
James isn't trying to pretend that he has mastered the switch to left tackle. But each day he feels more comfortable, and whether it's at left tackle or right tackle, James views being back on the field as a blessing.
"I'm not going to lie, it was frustrating in the spring, just because – like you said – coming back for the first time in years, I wanted to be at my best," James said. "This is a new challenge, but I'm definitely embracing it. It's an opportunity. I'm just going to continue to work at it, continue to try to get better and stack days."