OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata made it clear Tuesday he hopes to finish his career right where it started with the Ravens.
Whether that happens or not will largely hinge on how well the 30-year-old performs in his ninth season in Baltimore.
Under contract through the 2015 season, Ngata carries the second-highest cap figure of any defensive tackle in the league at $16 million this year. His cap figure remains the same next season, but the Ravens would stand to save $8.5 million in space should they elect to part ways with him after the 2014 season, making it highly unlikely they’ll simply allow the defensive lineman to play out the final year of his deal.
General manager Ozzie Newsome explored a contract extension this offseason to lower Ngata’s cap figure and afford him the opportunity to finish his career in Baltimore, but the sides didn’t get far when discussing how much additional money would be included in a new deal. It’s a strategy the organization executed with linebacker Terrell Suggs, who signed a four-year extension earlier this offseason to lower his 2014 cap number in the process.
“I would love to be a Raven for life,” Ngata said. “If we can get something done, that’d be great. We’ll just let my agent and Ozzie take care of that business off the field.”
Trying to determine Ngata’s value is a tricky proposition despite the 2006 first-round pick coming off his fifth straight invitation to the Pro Bowl. Nagging injuries over the last three seasons have limited his offseason preparation and in-season production, leading many to believe Ngata isn’t the same player who continues to receive the accolades. He has typically started each of the last few seasons well before fading down the stretch when physical ailments begin hindering him.
In 15 games last season, Ngata collected 52 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks, his lowest sack total since the 2009 season after three straight campaigns in which he collected five or more. According to Pro Football Focus, Ngata ranked 18th among all defensive tackles in the NFL last season as he received his fifth consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl.
Telling reporters and coach John Harbaugh this is the healthiest he’s been in several offseasons, Ngata envisions himself providing a greater presence as a pass rusher than he did a year ago. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 340 pounds, Ngata looks much like he did last year for the Ravens’ mandatory minicamp and did not attend the last three weeks of voluntary organized team activities.
“This year, I just tried to lose more body fat and just stay around the same weight,” said Ngata, who spent much of last offseason rehabbing the medial collateral ligament sprain that sidelined him in the second half of Super Bowl XLVII. “Towards the end of the season, I lost some strength, but [I’m] just trying to lose body fat and lean up a little bit more.”
A simple look at the last couple drafts indicate the Ravens are in the midst of rebuilding their defensive line. After selecting defensive tackle Brandon Williams in the third round of last year’s draft, Newsome took Florida State standout Timmy Jernigan in the second round this year as the pair will battle for the starting job vacated by free-agent departure Arthur Jones.
The Ravens envision Williams as a nose tackle, which would prompt defensive coordinator Dean Pees to slide Ngata back to the 3-technique tackle spot. However, Jernigan has a similar profile to Jones, which could keep Ngata at the nose position where he primarily played last season. Strong seasons from both Williams and Jernigan would enable the Ravens to take a strong stance as it relates to Ngata’s contract demands and future beyond 2014.
Jernigan is just one defensive lineman eager to soak up as much information as he can from the perennial All-Pro talent.
“It’s a blessing to play with another great defensive tackle,” Jernigan said. “It’s a defensive lineman’s dream to be able to play with a great player beside him. It definitely will take a whole bunch of pressure off me, and he’ll definitely be a great person to learn from.”
In the same way that Ngata learned from veterans such as Kelly Gregg and Trevor Pryce when arriving on the scene in 2006, the Ravens hope Ngata can help the likes of Jernigan, Williams, DeAngelo Tyson, Brent Urban, and Kapron Lewis-Moore take their play to the next level. Never one to be outspoken, the veteran acknowledged he might need to step outside his comfort zone to help lead such a young unit along with fellow veteran Chris Canty.
In reality, Ngata could find himself mentoring his imminent replacement with his future so cloudy beyond this season.
“Haloti is not going to change his personality,” Harbaugh said. “I have always felt like he was a great leader according to his personality. He works hard and he talks to the guys. He’ll continue to do what he’s always done. If he feels like he needs to talk a little more, it would be great.”
The biggest statement Ngata will need to make this season is with his play if he hopes to remain in Baltimore or at least put himself in optimum position for another payday on the open market if the Ravens deem his contract demands too expensive next winter.
No matter how much longer he remains with the Ravens, the league’s 12th-ranked defense from a year ago needs him to be a force in the trenches to take a significant step forward and get back to the postseason. And they’ll hope he recaptures his once-dominating form — and sustains it — with the benefit of a healthy offseason.
“I want to get better and better and try to at least get to double-digit sacks,” Ngata said. “That’s something I’ve never done. Hopefully, I can continue to get better and get to my goals.”