The Ravens contacted Haloti Ngata's representatives earlier this offseason to begin contract extension talks that the team hoped would allow the 30-year-old defensive lineman to finish his career in Baltimore.
Those talks, aimed at reducing Ngata's team-high $16 million salary cap number in each of the final two years of his deal and extending his stay in the purple and black, didn't get very far. But as he's preparing for his ninth NFL season with the Ravens, Ngata said he'd like nothing more than to follow in the footsteps of his closest friend on the team, Terrell Suggs, and sign a contract extension to end his career in the same place it began.
"I would love to be a Raven for life," Ngata said Tuesday following the first day of the Ravens' mandatory minicamp. "If we can get something done, that would be great. We'll just let my agent and [general manager Ozzie Newsome] take care of that business off the field."
It's not out of the question that the Ravens revisit the situation with Ngata's agents in the months ahead. If they don't, the coming season could be a pivotal one in determining the five-time Pro Bowl selection's future with the organization.
Ngata, who has a base salary of $8.5million over the next two seasons and will be the third-highest-paid defensive tackle in the NFL in 2014, has long been his own harshest critic. He acknowledged that he's been disappointed with his play the past couple of seasons, in which he's been effective but has had fewer moments of dominance.
Last season, he garnered his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl berth and led the defensive line with 52 tackles. However, Ngata lamented his struggles to get to the quarterback. He had just 1.5 sacks, his fewest since 2009. In each of his previous three seasons, Ngata had five or more sacks.
"With the pass rush, definitely," Ngata said when asked if he feels there is another level that he can reach. "I want to get better and better and try to at least get to double-digit sacks. That's something that I've never done. Hopefully, I can continue to get better and get to my goals."
Ngata has not participated in voluntary organized team activities in recent seasons, leaving his health and conditioning as major topics of conversation at the mandatory minicamp. Two years ago, Ngata showed up admittedly heavier than normal, hoping that the added weight would let him stay stronger and healthier throughout the season.
Last season, Ngata's preparation was affected by a bad shoulder and a knee injury that sidelined him for most of the second half of Super Bowl XLVII. He said Tuesday that this offseason has been the first time in several years that his focus has been on working out, not on rehabbing an injury.
"I feel great this year," said Ngata, acknowledging later that this is the best that he's felt in a long time. "This year is definitely a different feel. I feel great, faster. It's definitely different this year."
Ngata, who is listed as 6 feet 4 inches and 340 pounds, said his goal was to stay around the same weight but to lean up and lose some body fat. He said that he's been happy so far with the results and several teammates noticed that Ngata appears happier and healthier.
"The big guy looks good, man," said strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil. "It's good to see him feeling better. He's the anchor of this D. Once he gets going and he's feeling great, it just opens up everything for the inside 'backers, the outside guys. So having the big guy ready to roll, that's a good thing to hear."
In Ngata's first eight seasons with the Ravens, the team boasted a top-10 defense six times, finishing in the top three statistically in four of those years. However, the Ravens finished 12th last year, allowing 335.5 yards per game. They were 11th against the run (104.5 yards per game) and 12th against the pass (230.1).
The overall ranking was an improvement from the Super Bowl-winning 2012 campaign, but Ngata acknowledged that the defense didn't play up to the standard expected in this organization. Ravens officials seemed to recognize that too, as they used four of the team's first five draft picks on defensive players. They also re-signed middle linebacker Daryl Smith and signed veteran safety Darian Stewart, who is now working with the first-team defense.
"I think a lot of it falls on the veterans to lead these young guys," said Ngata, who mentioned that he's been impressed with several of the young defensive linemen, including Timmy Jernigan, Brandon Williams and Kapron Lewis-Moore. "We definitely have the talent with all these younger guys coming in. Hopefully [Suggs], myself, Chris Canty and all those guys can rally this unit up and we can become a dominant defense again."
Ngata, who played primarily nose tackle last season, lined up in several defensive spots at Tuesday's workout. With starting defensive tackle Arthur Jones having signed with the Indianapolis Colts this offseason, the Ravens could ask Ngata to move around more this year to capitalize on mismatches. That's just fine to Ngata, who says that by now, he's comfortable wherever the Ravens put him.
He did express a willingness to move out of his comfort zone a little bit and be more of a vocal leader. Ngata, who is quiet by nature, has taken a back seat in that area to Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and then Suggs last season. But he feels he might need to be more vocal to help the younger defensive linemen improve.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said that he'd welcome Ngata's talking a little bit more. But more than anything, the Ravens are hoping that a healthier Ngata is also a more dominant one.
"With Haloti, the expectations are always very high," Harbaugh said. "He expects that — that's how he likes it. He's healthier – he told me this morning – than he has ever been in the offseason. So, he's probably able to train better than he has in a few years. The expectations are very high for Haloti."
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