OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Rookie second-round outside linebacker Tyus Bowser was 7 years old when the Ravens selected Terrell Suggs with the 10th overall pick of the 2003 draft.
First-round cornerback Marlon Humphrey was 6.
Having years ago referred to former teammate and soon-to-be Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis as Mufasa — a reference to the sage leader of the Pride Lands in “The Lion King” — Suggs understands he’s the last of his kind and he’s embraced that, even referring to himself as the Darth Vader of a new era.
“I like having fun with the younger guys,” said the 34-year-old, now entering his 15th season in the NFL. “They tell me how old they are, and I’m like, ‘Holy s–t.’ It’s weird, but I like it. It feels good.”
This spring was different for Suggs, who had always skipped the voluntary offseason workout program in the past and would work out on his own before showing up for mandatory minicamp in June. His weight and conditioning levels varied from year to year, sometimes sparking criticism when he wasn’t in the best of shape.
But after hearing rave reviews from those teammates who worked with Ravens director of performance Steve Saunders last offseason, the six-time Pro Bowl selection elected to give it a try. Having gone through spring workouts in Owings Mills — head coach John Harbaugh chose to hold him out of the voluntary spring practices open to the media — Suggs says he hasn’t felt this good in June in many years.
“It’s funny seeing him die in workouts and doing the running, lifting,” said safety Eric Weddle, who was one of the first to embrace Saunders’ rigorous methods. “It’s great for him. I think he knows that at this point in his career, he needs to be in the best shape of his life. He needs to be as strong as he can so he can get through the season. We need him.”
Suggs enjoyed a fine 2016 in his return from the second Achilles tendon tear of his career — especially considering he played with a torn biceps for much of the season — but his eight sacks marked his lowest total in a year not substantially abbreviated by injuries since 2009. He may no longer stand among the elite defensive players in the NFL, but the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year is still an above-average starting linebacker who plays the run very well and can conjure up a big play in a critical spot.
His boisterous behavior is evident at practices when he’s hooting and hollering at someone or taking owner Steve Bisciotti’s golf cart for a joyride on his way out to the back fields at the team facility, but Suggs does much more than keep the mood light in the locker room and in the huddle. Having learned from obsessive students of the game like Lewis and nine-time Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed early in his career, Suggs is constantly praised by those who know him best for his football intellect.
The Ravens hope he continues passing down those lessons to young players such as Bowser, 2016 fifth-round pick Matt Judon, and fourth-round rookie Tim Williams to rebuild a pass rush that had markedly declined over the last couple years.
“You can really tell a difference in our types of practice when he is here and when he is not here,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who added that Suggs looks like he’s 25 years old again. “It’s more fun for me when he is here, too. But when it is time to be serious, there’s nobody more serious. There is really nobody smarter on this defensive football team than Terrell Suggs.”
Suggs was noncommittal when asked how much longer he hopes to play or whether he has any visions of trying to match Lewis’ 17 years with the Ravens, but he made it clear that he doesn’t feel like it’s his time to “cross that bridge” to retirement yet. His contract runs through 2018 and is scheduled to pay him $4 million in base salary for each of the next two years.
His commitment to be in the building this spring hasn’t gone unnoticed as the Ravens made a conscious effort to get younger this offseason after missing the playoffs for the third time in four years. Seeing general manager Ozzie Newsome show the door to five-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Elvis Dumervil likely served a reminder to Suggs about his own football mortality as he turns 35 in October.
“What I am so impressed with is the leadership by example that he has demonstrated in this offseason,” Harbaugh said. “He is out there doing it, and he is out there competing with the guys every day in the conditioning program. It is impressive to watch, and that is a great way to get guys attention if you want to be a leader.”
Fun and camaraderie aside, Suggs wants to win. He hasn’t gone through a down period like this from a team standpoint since the end of the Brian Billick era and is counting on an extensive batch of defensive additions to help him get back to the playoffs.
Suggs may not have expressed any clear intention of trying to surpass Lewis for most years spent with the Ravens, but he did mention the way his former leader was able to go out on top with a championship.
“We can’t fall short anymore,” Suggs said. “It’s a terrible thing when you don’t capitalize on your potential. We’ve always had a capable team; we’ve just haven’t always capitalized on it. I think it’s time to cash in and don’t be one of the odd teams looking in when it becomes the second season in January.”