Nearly a year ago, the word was out on newly acquired Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce, and the word was not good.
Critics from his days in Denver suggested his best years were behind him, and that he took plays off. They said if old injuries didn't get to Pryce, new ones would.
Yet Pryce had a Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2006. The Ravens thought they had a good pass rusher in Pryce, but no one expected 13 sacks. Most surprising was his ability to play the run. Pryce had 73 tackles, and offenses were running to the opposite side.
In 2007, will there be an encore for Pryce, who turns 32 this summer? Was last season an aberration from recent years in Denver, or did a fresh start in a new city rejuvenate his career?
"Actually, I feel better, stronger than I was last year," Pryce said. "I ran a 4.5 [-second] 40 this offseason, and I'm pretty excited about that."
Despite playing 10 seasons and suffering from a herniated disc in his lower back that forced him to miss 14 games in 2004, Pryce was relatively spry during the three-day minicamp that ended Thursday. He seems to be having a lot of fun in practice and running out every play as if he were a rookie again.
He has been wearing the No. 8 jersey, which is usually reserved for quarterbacks, not for guys who like to devour them. The only person who seems more excited than Pryce is defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who expects Pryce to play at a higher level this season because he has a year of experience in the Ravens' system.
"He is tremendous going to the quarterback," Ryan said. "We may have to do a couple of different things with him, and they may be somewhat exotic. But we just want to keep him going to the quarterback."
Pryce said that's what made him so successful last season. Ryan is good at disguising defenses and has all kinds of tricks for the ends. They aren't asked just to rush the quarterback, but sometimes to drop into zone coverage or cover a running back.
Pryce struggled with some of the concepts in training camp last summer, but once the season started, Ryan gave him one major assignment.
"Last year had nothing to do with my health," Pryce said. "I've been healthy ever since my back healed. Last year I was actually allowed to rush the passer and had a coach that said your job is to get the quarterback, and not drop into coverage."
Pryce earned the reputation as a dynamic pass rusher (64 sacks) during nine seasons with the Broncos. But in his final two years there, he had only four sacks, all coming in the 2005 season. The Ravens signed him last March after losing defensive linemen Tony Weaver and Maake Kemoeatu through free agency.
Ryan had heard some of the same bad things about Pryce, including that he wasn't a good guy in the locker room. But win or lose, Pryce has been a stand-up player. He has a great sense of humor and warm smile.
In one season, he has established himself as a team leader.
"I remember when George Kokinis [director of pro personnel] called me up," Ryan said. "I was already ticked off because we had lost some guys. George says, 'Hey Rex, how would you like to have Trevor Pryce?' I said, 'Do you need me to walk and go pack his bags for him?' I heard some bad things about Trevor; you always hear that kind of stuff. But what a teammate. That's something you never know about a guy until he gets here."
Pryce had another surprise for the Ravens. He became a run stopper using his long, powerful arms to keep opposing offensive linemen away from his body. No one ever associated Pryce with stopping the run in Denver. But here in Baltimore, Pryce fit in with the blue-collar Ravens.
The defense is predicated on discipline, with each player having to take care of his own responsibilities. The Ravens thrive on speed and relentless pursuit, and their defensive players seldom get knocked off their feet.
"What really surprised me more than anything was the way he played the run," Ryan said. "In Denver, he was taught certain things. He came here and humbled himself, as if to say, 'I'm going to learn it the Ravens' way in the running game,' and he did."
Pryce is far from selfish. He's not too concerned about picking up where he left off, but more concerned about his teammates. He says the Ravens are closer to winning a Super Bowl this season than a year ago.
"The danger is that NFL teams, media and fans get complacent," Pryce said. "If it doesn't go exactly like last year, then you're failures. But there is only one goal, and the only team that met that goal was Indianapolis. Everybody else failed. ... Our goal is the same, and we're a little closer to that this year."
Read Mike Preston and others on the Ravens Central blog at baltimoresun.com/ravenscentral.