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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs has never experienced a training camp quite like this as he enters his 11th season in the NFL.
Longtime teammates and mentors Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are no longer in the building, not to mention several other veteran leaders of the defending Super Bowl champions as the Ravens have undergone a more substantial makeover than any past champion in league history.
Those departures coupled with an injury-plagued 2012 season that limited the five-time Pro Bowl selection to just eight games and a career-low two sacks would make just about anyone ponder his own football mortality. But Suggs quickly dispelled any notion that he’s rapidly approaching the same age bracket as the retired Lewis or Reed, who will turn 35 in September.
“I’m 30, so I’m alright,” said Suggs, cracking a half-smile. “A lot of these guys were a lot older than me, but I’m 30. If you ask me, I’m probably entering my football prime right now. I’m not going to think about that this year definitely. At the end of the year, probably — I don’t know. It depends on how the year goes.”
And it might be a more important year for Suggs than most realize as he tries to show he is 100 percent after suffering a torn Achilles tendon on the weekend of the 2012 draft and a torn right biceps in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 2 of last year. The 2011 Defensive Player of the Year played courageously through significant pain, but he will be out to prove he remains closer to that award-winning performer he was two years ago than the pass rusher who struggled to make a consistent impact last season.
Suggs does have another year remaining on the six-year, $62.5 million contract he signed in the summer of 2009, but that deal carries a $12.4 million cap number in 2014, which is projected to account for roughly 10 percent of next season’s total cap. Unlike this season when cutting Suggs would have netted the Ravens only $1.8 million in cap savings to go along with $11.2 million in dead money, general manager Ozzie Newsome would gain $7.8 million in cap space if he decided to part ways with the 2003 first-round pick next winter.
Knowing the way in which Newsome and the front office view every player as a commodity with an appraised monetary figure, it’s likely that the Ravens will attempt to address that 2014 number in any number of ways — regardless of how Suggs performs this season.
Asked what he expects of himself this season, Suggs wouldn’t offer specifics, saying only that he plans to continue working hard while hoping to stay healthy. Noticeably slimmer this year, the elder statesman of the Baltimore defense is happy to just be able to take part in training camp this year, a notion he wouldn’t have expressed in the past. At this point last year, Suggs was more than two months away from even returning to the practice field.
“It put a lot of things in perspective with things I took for granted,” Suggs said. “Just like the opportunity to go to work and play with my teammates. Every football player will tell you reporting to camp is not really our happiest time, but it’s definitely needed to get our bodies in football shape. I wish I had the opportunity to do training camp last year.”
Dealing with a plethora of personnel changes to the defense has been made easier by the free-agent addition of fellow Pro Bowl linebacker Elvis Dumervil. Suggs paid compliments to former teammates Jarret Johnson and Paul Kruger but recognized Dumervil as the most talented outside linebacker he’s ever played with. The two have combined for a remarkable 148 sacks in their careers.
Asked how effective the pass-rushing tandem can be for the Ravens defense this season, Suggs paused and smiled before offering his answer.
“We can be pretty good,” Suggs said, “if everything goes according to plan and we keep everybody healthy. It’s going to take more than just us two though for the duo to work. There are other guys in the front. It’s a collaborative effort of everybody doing their job in the back end.”
It’s a task that won’t be easy as the Ravens will feature their first defense of the post-Lewis era and could feature as many as nine different starters from the starting defensive unit we saw in Super Bowl XLVII.
With the iconic leader affectionately known as “Mufasa” — a reference to the Disney movie “The Lion King” — and Reed now gone, Suggs admits feeling more responsibility as the longest-tenured player on the roster. However, he plans to remain his playful self in the locker room and on the practice field while acknowledging that the massive shoes of Lewis can’t be filled by any one player individually.
“It’s definitely going to be interesting to see what it looks like,” Suggs said. “I’ve said it before [about] his legacy. He has left a standard here, and every man on this defense will be held accountable in playing to that standard.”
The biggest question for Suggs is whether he can live up to his own impeccable standards that existed prior to the torn Achilles tendon, an injury from which many veterans are unable to regain their full explosiveness. Judging him too harshly on last year’s performance would be unfair after a remarkable — even unprecedented — recovery time of under six months, but the Ravens will be watching closely, hoping the Suggs who collected a combined 25 sacks in 2010 and 2011 resurfaces to lead a revamped defense in 2013.
His future — at least in Baltimore — depends on it.
“You can always do better, especially with this city,” Suggs said. “This is a league of, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ so I don’t want to rest on those laurels. I’m good with those mountains that I’ve climbed, but I’m into climbing more. That’s what we’re in this business for, so I’m looking for my next obstacle. We’ll just determine what that is in the near future.”