OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lee Evans can't say for sure whether he will be back on the field Sunday when the Baltimore Ravens face the Cincinnati Bengals in a showdown for a piece of first place in the AFC North.
The speedy wide receiver does know this much: He's sick of watching games from the sideline.
Obtained in a preseason trade with the Buffalo Bills, Evans was supposed to give the Ravens the deep threat they've been lacking for years. The eight-year pro played in the first two games but has missed the last seven with a left ankle injury.
"It hasn't been an easy process," Evans said. "I've just tried to stay with it, stay consistent and do everything I can to get back on the field. It's something that you can't rush. You just kind of have to let it heal. I'm just learning a little patience here, more than I have."
The 30-year-old has only two catches for 45 yards, both in a loss to Tennessee in Week 2. Evans says he's "optimistic" about returning Sunday, but he and coach John Harbaugh acknowledged his status will likely be a game-time decision.
"That's to be determined," Harbaugh said. "We're always hopeful, but we'll have to see."
Evans spent seven seasons with the Bills before coming to Baltimore in August for a fourth-round pick in 2012. Although his receptions per season have dropped every year since he had 63 in 2008 — a trend that will continue in 2011 — Evans has 379 catches for 5,979 yards and 43 touchdowns since Buffalo made him a first-round pick out of Wisconsin.
He was expected to be a tempting target for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Instead, Evans has been forced to watch the offense operate without him.
"It has been tough," he said. "You go through different things during a season and a career, and this was just another obstacle to handle. Hopefully we're on the tail end of it and we can put it behind us."
Fortunately for the Ravens, rookie Torrey Smith has stepped in and provided speed on the outside. In assessing Smith's talent, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis might as well have been talking about Evans.
"Very fast. Great vertical speed, and he'll catch the ball over the top," Lewis said.
When Evans returns, Baltimore hopes to make it difficult for the opposing free safety to pick one or the other to cover deep. With Evans, Smith, Anquan Boldin and tight end Ed Dickson running patterns, plus Ray Rice out of the backfield, Flacco will have plenty of options.
"We have a number of different receivers who can do things," Evans said. "It's a matter of getting guys in position to make plays."
Evans says he can cut and run without difficulty, and dismissed the notion he will be rusty upon his return.
"I don't think catching the ball will be re-inventing the wheel for me," he said. "It's just a matter of making plays when I get a chance."
That time can't come soon enough. He almost got his chance last Sunday against Seattle, but instead was given another week to heal.
"Last week was real positive," he said. "Hopefully we can build off that this week and get over the hump."