OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The timing couldn’t have been better for the return of Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata from a four-game suspension.
Not only do the Pittsburgh Steelers loom in the first round of the AFC playoffs, but Baltimore lost rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan — Ngata’s replacement over the last month — to a foot injury in the regular-season finale. Even if the Steelers are without Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell on Saturday night, there’s no understating the boost a five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman can provide for a postseason run.
“He was missed a lot in the locker room, especially by me,” said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who’s teamed with Ngata for the last nine years. “But as soon as we won [last Sunday], we saw the score, we’re in, and we’re like, ‘Yo, we get Haloti back.’ Now the locker room is kind of back [and] complete, so to say. It’s good to have one of the best interior linemen in the game going into a big playoff game like this.”
Teammates and coaches appear to have welcomed Ngata back with open arms after a positive test for Adderall cost him the final four games of the regular season, but it’s fair to wonder how much damage might have been done to his potential future in Baltimore. Ngata is scheduled to carry a $16 million salary cap figure in 2015 — the final year of a $61 million deal signed in 2011 — and many wondered how the Ravens would plan to address his contract long before the news came of his suspension on Dec. 4.
The 2006 first-round pick is one of the best players in franchise history and has been a respected member of the locker room for nearly a decade, which made his suspension as surprising as it was disappointing. In the midst of his strongest season since 2011, Ngata testing positive for Adderall was, at best, a substantial error in judgment as it now makes critics question how long he’s used a drug the NFL considers a performance-enhancing substance without a prescription.
Ngata was noncommittal when asked if he’d seek a prescription to use Adderall in the future, preferring to keep the focus on the Ravens’ fourth all-time postseason meeting with Pittsburgh.
“It was rough — definitely rough,” Ngata said of his ban. “I was talking to a bunch of the guys, and it felt like I was retired watching football during the season while I was just at home watching the game. It felt weird, but I’m just glad that we were able to get the wins and get into the playoffs.”
The 30-year-old has played at a high level this season, but his suspension offered the Baltimore defense an opportunity to see how it would fare without him. Winning three of four games, the Ravens remained stout against the run as second-year nose tackle Brandon Williams and Jernigan anchored the defensive line for the league’s fourth-ranked rush defense. In truth, the unit didn’t appear to miss a beat, which is more of a compliment to the rest of the defensive line than a slight to Ngata.
General manager Ozzie Newsome and the front office have often preached about an “80/20 rule” for valuing players in which the Ravens will seek out players offering 80 percent of the production for 20 percent of the cost of a high-priced player. One wonders if spending high draft picks on Williams and Jernigan over the last two years and their performance in Ngata’s absence will ultimately push the veteran out the door this offseason — and save $8.5 million in cap space in the process.
Ngata will not only be returning to try to help the Ravens make another postseason run, but he’ll be auditioning for his future — in Baltimore or elsewhere. There’s no way the Ravens can justify a $16 million cap figure for Ngata next season, but the 340-pound defensive tackle has the opportunity to remind everyone of how much havoc he can create for an opposing offensive line.
But first, all eyes will be on his conditioning on Saturday after a four-game layoff.
“He’s been training — that’s what he told me,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He looks good, and I’m sure he is. I’m sure he’s busting out of his skin. I’m sure he’s ready to go.”
The Ravens hope he’s ready to help them beat Pittsburgh for the first time ever in the postseason, and Ngata has plenty to prove in bouncing back from the lowest point of his NFL career. A standout showing in the postseason would make the Ravens feel better about pursuing a short-term extension with Ngata like they did with Suggs a year ago, but a quiet performance could reinforce the sentiment that it might be best to move on from the still-talented defensive tackle who is now on the wrong side of 30.
Ultimately, Newsome may decide it’s better to part ways with Ngata a year too early than to throw too much money at a player who isn’t getting any younger. His future may come down to just how much loyalty and regret he feels after putting his team in a bad spot over the final quarter of the regular season and how that could factor into negotiations.
If Ngata is looking for another significant payday, he may need to find it elsewhere. But if he’s willing to play ball with the Ravens in lowering his cap figure in exchange for a couple more seasons at a reasonable rate in Baltimore, he’ll have a chance to finish his career where it started.
“I just feel like I owe these guys,” said Ngata of his teammates. “I’m just going to do whatever I can to help the team, and I’m definitely just ready to get back out there again.”
The Ravens are certainly welcoming him back for what they hope is a meaningful postseason run, but how long will he remain after that?