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Ravens players see healthy returns of stars as key to 2016

Quarterback Joe Flacco arrived first, walking gingerly to his locker where he was quickly surrounded by reporters. Wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. came in about eight minutes later and propped his right foot up on a stool as he addressed his decision to put off retirement and return for a 16th NFL season.

Before too long, tight end Dennis Pitta was in front of his locker, and so were left tackle Eugene Monroe and center Jeremy Zuttah. Running back Justin Forsett and tight end Crockett Gillmore popped their heads in, as well.

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All seven players were viewed as key parts of the Ravens offense in 2015. Yet each one finished the year among the 21 Ravens on either injured reserve or the physically unable to perform list.

As the offseason began Monday following the conclusion on Sunday of a bitterly disappointing 5-11 season, many Ravens said the healthy returns of frontline players are the biggest additions the team can make over the next couple of months.

"It's definitely a different feeling this offseason than ever before for myself for a lot of reasons," said Flacco, who tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee during a Nov. 22 victory over the St. Louis Rams. "Obviously we didn't win as many games as we wanted to this year and obviously what's going on with me. But we have a lot of good guys coming back and hopefully we can keep as healthy as possible when they do get ready to come back next year.

"We've got to head into this just like any other year, optimistic about our future and do as much work as we can to make sure that we come back ready to go."

A little less than a month removed from having his knee surgically repaired, Flacco said his recovery is going well. He's been rehabilitating at the Under Armour Performance Center twice a day and was even getting around Monday without crutches.

The goal remains for Flacco to be ready for the start of training camp in August, but the quarterback said that it's far too early to know if that's possible.

"By August, I'll be like eight months out of surgery," he said. "I don't know what the timeline is on these things, but I'm in there doing the work. So, I'm expecting I'll be ready to go. I really have no idea, though."

Smith, Flacco's top target, also isn't sure when he'll be able to return to action. He tore his right Achilles tendon during a Nov. 1 victory over the San Diego Chargers. Smith has begun the rehab process and he got out of his walking boot Monday.

He's been urged to take it slow for the next four weeks, and then he's expected to ramp up his activity level at the 12-week mark. Smith, however, said he won't push the pace.

"I won't be ahead of schedule," Smith said. "If anything, to be safe, I'll be behind schedule. With an injury like this, you don't want to be ahead of schedule. That takes away a lot of stuff."

Smith will turn 37 in May, and he'll be coming off a significant injury. The fiery wide receiver insisted that he would have rehabbed the injury hard whether he was planning to play again or not, just because he wants to be able to play with his kids.

Ultimately, though, Smith said he and his wife started having discussions about him playing another season as early as Week 2. It became obvious — season-ending injury or not — that he would return for one more year.

"Before I got hurt, you all didn't think I would be able to put up the numbers that I was at 36. So, will I be able to put up numbers at 37? To be honest, you guys don't know what the hell you're talking about, so it doesn't matter," Smith said. "Can I run like I used to at 22? No, but I'm comfortable being 37 years old, being on this team, and they're comfortable with me, so we're going to operate that way."

Pitta is also playing the waiting game. He missed the entire 2015 season as he continues to recover from his second fractured and dislocated hip.

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Over the past three seasons, the tight end has played in just seven games. However, he hasn't given up hope that he'll return for the 2016 season. He wants to play, yet he still hasn't gotten full clearance from his doctors.

"It's not entirely my decision," Pitta said Monday. "Certainly, I have a lot of weight in what my future holds, but it's not totally in my hands. There's no timeline as far as when a decision is going to be made. We'll give it some time this offseason, and I'll certainly do some thinking and testing my body and hip, and we'll see."

The Ravens finished 14th in the NFL in total offense (359.3 yards per game), but just 25th in points per game (20.3), and 26th in rushing yards per game (92.4). Their 21 interceptions on the season, a total accrued by four quarterbacks, were tied for the third most in the NFL.

But as several key players cleaned out their lockers and dumped clothes and equipment into large black garbage bags, they spoke with optimism about the future of the offense and the team.

"I know Joe Flacco. I know he's going to be, in the offseason, working to make sure that he's 110 percent when it's time to go. And I know Steve Smith, I know Terrell Suggs. I know those guys are going to do everything in their power," said Zuttah who had shoulder surgery in mid-November. "We've got a lot of young guys on the team that are going to just add to what they they've done and just keep improving. I'm confident in everybody in this locker room."

The Ravens' hope is that some good will come out of the rash of injuries that the team suffered. Young players such as running backs Buck Allen and Terrance West (Towson, Northwestern High); wide receivers Kamar Aiken, Jeremy Butler and Chris Matthews; tight end Maxx Williams; offensive linemen John Urschel and Ryan Jensen; and outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith got extended opportunities to play bigger roles.

The Ravens also will hold the sixth overall pick in the NFL draft in April. The last time they made a selection that high, they nabbed Jamal Lewis with the fifth pick in 2000, and the physical running back emerged as the focal point of the Ravens offense for many years.

The sense Monday, though, as players said their goodbyes and scattered to different parts of the country, was that the 2016 team's fortunes will be largely tied to the health of guys like Flacco, Forsett, Smith and Suggs.

"I think we're starting out with a good foundation, but obviously, we need to improve," Flacco said. "We need to play better. We're going to have to look at what we have when this offseason settles down and see where we may need a guy or two. But yes, we need to improve; there's no doubt about it. We're a 5-11 football team, and we feel like we're a lot better than that."

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