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After disappointing end to 2017, Ravens put optimistic face on first day of extended training camp

Tony Jefferson finished last season with tears in his eyes, blaming himself for the 49-yard touchdown pass that ended the Ravens’ playoff chances on a frigid New Year’s Eve.

“Mentally, it was tough. We were a play away from being in the playoffs,” the Ravens safety said Wednesday as he and fellow veterans rolled in for the beginning of training camp in Owings Mills.

The tears were long gone, replaced by a calm smile to match the glimmering No. 23 necklace around Jefferson’s neck. He just married the woman he’s dated since 10th grade, and he believes the 2018 Ravens “can be whatever we want to be.”

“I know for most people, and myself, it took about two or three days, and I was ready to get back to work,” he said. “I was back in the weight room. Sitting and moping around about it is not going to do anything. … All of that’s behind us. It’s 2018, and it’s a new year.”

It’s the optimistic face an entire organization is trying to project as the Ravens begin a crucial season.

They’re the first team in the NFL to start camp, just two weeks ahead of their preseason opener — the Aug. 2 Hall of Fame Game against the Chicago Bears. They’ll begin practicing Thursday morning with 2,000 fans looking on at their renovated training complex in Owings Mills.

It could be a year of substantial transition, with a veteran team trying to make the playoffs for the first time in four years at the same time a scintillating young quarterback, Lamar Jackson, assumes his role as the city’s most scrutinized apprentice.

It’s the last season for the franchise’s front-office rock, general manager Ozzie Newsome, as he prepares to hand the reins to his longtime understudy, Eric DeCosta. And it could be the last for coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco if the team doesn’t perform better on the field.

Harbaugh and Flacco have been together for 11 seasons, the twin faces of an era that has included a Super Bowl victory, six playoff appearances and just one losing record.

But the Ravens have gone 40-40 since they claimed the Lombardi Trophy in February 2013, and that mediocrity has soured fans, who left thousands of seats empty for home games at M&T Bank Stadium last season.

Newsome overhauled the team’s offense, drafting Jackson and tight end Hayden Hurst in the first round and signing three wide receivers who’ve excelled in other cities — Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead IV.

The receivers gathered with Flacco last week at a park across the street from the team’s training complex, hoping to deepen the chemistry they began to develop during offseason workouts in May and June.

They know they’re here to throw a jolt into an offense that’s stagnated too often in recent seasons.

“I’m just totally excited,” Snead said. “I watched Crabtree growing up, just the type of receiver he is, the type of mentality he has. He brings something special to the table. John Brown, he brings something crazy to the table with his speed and his change of pace in the offense. And then me and the rest of the guys in the offense, I’ve been told something like this hasn’t been brought to this building in a while. And when people say that, and the momentum building behind this team, you can’t help but be excited about it.”

Hurst, the team’s first pick at No. 25 overall, is expected to be an immediate part of that change with his mobility and sure hands. Four years ago, he was a failed baseball prospect grasping for a different path forward as an athlete. So he seemed thrilled just to be starting his first NFL camp, which actually began a week ago for the team’s rookies.

“I can’t put words to it. It’s crazy that I’m here,” he said. “They brought in lot of free agents with Crab, John and Willie. I just want to do my part down the middle of the field and help Joe out, and then that’s going to take pressure off those guys on the outside. If I do my part, I think the opportunities for our offense are pretty endless.”

Stability is the name of the game on the other side of the ball, where the Ravens lost just one significant contributor, defensive back Lardarius Webb, from last season.

The biggest change for the defense is on top, where linebackers coach Don “Wink” Martindale was promoted to replace coordinator Dean Pees.

Jefferson sounded as bullish about Martindale’s influence as he is about the stability in personnel.

“He’s giving us a lot of freedom to be ourselves, and that’s going to help a lot of guys,” he said.

Fellow safety Eric Weddle ducked his head out the door to bark at Jefferson mid-interview. “Great wedding, man!” he shouted.

Jefferson said that upbeat attitude, typical for Weddle, has carried across the entire roster.

“We’ve got so much talent. It’s exciting about the opportunity we have,” he said. “We’re loving the moment. Last year wasn’t how we wanted it to end, but the best part about it is we have another opportunity. I think everybody’s fired up. Everybody came in here smiling, happy and excited to get rolling.”

You might expect grumbling from the veterans about an extra week of training camp. Jefferson, for example, could be on his honeymoon instead of preparing for tedious drills under the scorching July sun.

But no one seemed to mind much.

“I think it’s an advantage,” Jefferson said. “I would love to be with my wife and my kid, but at the end of the day, this is my job. I love being here, a Raven. And we’ve got an opportunity ahead of us where we could be champions. Who doesn’t want to be here to do that?”

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