OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Terrell Suggs still has that twinkle in his eye and that boyish smile with an occasionally goofy sense of humor. But as he prepares for what will be his 15th NFL season and having completed yet another June minicamp, he was certainly old enough and wise enough to know that the end is near.
Suggs, who turns 35 in October, remains one of the Baltimore Ravens' linchpin players, his pass rushing import as vital as ever. He is the final holdover from those iconic Baltimore defenses around the start of this millennium, taking the torch from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as the face of this unit. If he is able to hold back Father Time once more, then the Ravens' chances of getting back to that level of play increase dramatically in 2017. Suggs is the lone player still in this dressing room able to tell tales from a time when the Ravens' defense was the standard all others were measured by, setting records and winning games despite an offense that at times could go weeks on end without scoring touchdowns.
That distinguished position -- and the fact that Suggs is well aware that the 2017 season is not guaranteed, much less 2018 -- seems to be bringing out the best in the defensive end, who has been mercurial at times in his career. Used to be that in May and June fans, the media, teammates and team officials would wonder what the star was up to -- where he was training, how hard he was training, what kind of shape he might be in when he finally appeared in these parts for mandatory minicamp. There were years when that initial check-in was less than flattering from a conditioning standpoint, and times when he showed up hobbled, like from an Achilles injury suffered while training on his own one spring.
So, it has hardly gone unnoticed that Suggs has been ever present this offseason, a mainstay in the workout program, a willing ear for youngsters to bend. His midsection is trimmed, his arms are like tree trunks. Suggs is signed through 2018 but is essentially year-to-year at this point with the only team he has ever played for owing him no more guaranteed money. And with a shrine in Canton perhaps in the balance and on a team that believes it can be a true contender if this defense performs to its capabilities, Suggs speaks in pragmatic tones about where he is in his career, cognizant of what is at stake for him and the Ravens with the team in playoffs-or-bust mode.
"I'm the [Darth] Vader of the group, but I like it, I like it," Suggs joked. "You can't deny a C.J. Mosley or a Brandon Williams or an Eric Weddle, or T.J. [Tony Jefferson] and the guys we have now, and I'm very fortunate to still be a part of it, and that last piece of the transition. It's a good feeling but I'm also excited to see these young guys and the statement they're trying to make, too."
Suggs had made a habit of spending the winter and spring in Arizona, where he had his own routines, where he has always made his home. But after hearing teammates rave about the programs installed by Baltimore strength coach Steve Saunders and seeing the gains others made by embracing that last offseason, he committed to doing the same himself this time around.
"This time I wanted to give it a shot, to be a part of the offseason program," Suggs said. "I waited until year 15 to actually give it a try, and it worked out. It worked pretty good. I liked it. I haven't felt this good in June in years."
Suggs' timing is impeccable, as this might prove to be a defining season in these parts for many mainstays. If the Ravens were to miss the postseason for a fourth time in five years, then changes in the coaching staff or front office -- led by Ozzie Newsome since the franchise moved from Cleveland more than 20 years ago -- are hardly out of the question. This season could have lasting implications, which is lost on no one here. Baltimore's roster has become increasingly younger in recent years, and while they are desperate for youngsters to break through on both sides of the ball, getting one last double-digit sack season out of the oldest defensive player on the roster would go a long way toward achieving their goals as well, with former aging bookend pass rusher Elvis Dumervil let go this offseason.
Given what they've seen at this practice facility the past few months, no one is betting against it.
"It's always been important to him, but we've never seen a more motivated Terrell Suggs than right now," coach John Harbaugh said at the end of his team's final day of mini camp and last time together before training camp convenes at the end of July. "He's put an incredible amount of work in, with intensity. I think he's going to be in the best shape of his career at this stage of his career."
Suggs' prolonged presence around the team this offseason can only help a bevvy of young pass rushers Baltimore is trying to cultivate, including Matt Judon, Tim Williams and Kamalei Correa. Suggs has taken to the mentoring role more and become much more of a team leader the past few years since looming presences like Reed and Lewis moved on.
"I think he's always embraced it, but probably better than ever now, certainly," Harbaugh said. "What I'm so impressed with is the leadership by example this offseason. He's out there doing it. He's out there competing with these guys every day in the conditioning program, and it's impressive to watch, and it's a great way to get guys' attention."
Suggs, who was selected 10th overall in 2003 out of Arizona State and who burst out as a rookie at 20, has been dogged by injuries in recent years, playing just one game in 2015 and playing through nagging ailments a year ago while often not able to be at full strength. Still, he posted eight sacks in 15 games while still being asked to assume heavy responsibility in the run game. That marked the seventh time in his 14 seasons that Suggs led the team in sacks.
Suggs is far and away the all-time franchise leader in sacks, entering this season with 114.5 (Peter Boulware is next at 70) and is headed to the team's Ring of Honor when he retires. Whether he dons a mustard jacket one day is up for debate, though his résumé is clearly not yet complete.
Since Suggs entered the league, only Robert Mathis (123), Julius Peppers (131.5), Jared Allen (136) and DeMarcus Ware (138.5) have registered more sacks. While Suggs has not had the boffo individual seasons some others have posted -- his single-season high is a relatively modest 14 -- he has been quite consistent when healthy. It's worth noting he has five more career sacks than Dwight Freeney, for instance, playing in only five more games (and Suggs has played in the much tougher AFC North his entire career).
When you have numbers like those, and can tell stories like Suggs, it's obvious why so much is being made about his presence in Baltimore throughout the offseason program.
"You see him doing the workouts and doing the running and the lifting," Weddle said. "It's great for everybody. He knows at this point in his career that he needs to be in the best shape of his life and to be as strong as he can, because we're going to need him to be an impact player. He's our leader … I think he understands that, and it's just a joy to have a player and a personality around like that day in and day out. It's been a huge plus for our team."
Suggs has tried to make the most out of this experience, being around the locker room far more than usual. He jokes with young players about how old they were when he broke in back in 2003 (some were barely in elementary school). "It's weird but I like it," Suggs said of being the old man on the team, while vowing that his ultimate goal is to still be "just a big kid."
He was fully bracing for questions about his future during this meeting with the media -- specifically whether he would try to complete 17 seasons in purple and black as Lewis did -- but after all of his injuries, and watching teammate Dennis Pitta, coming off a third fractured hip, essentially announce his retirement just a few minutes before Suggs spoke, he has seen enough and heard enough to know that soon he may have had enough of the NFL, himself.
"You don't want to cap yourself, but the NFL season sometimes has different plans for you," Suggs said. "You just take it one year at a time, and as long as you can keep going and keep being productive and get better every year, then you can keep doing it. But time is undefeated."
So he's trying to savor these mundane June days and afternoons in a helmet and shells, playing simulated football against teammates, unable to hit or tackle anyone. He feels energized by being around the kids for a few months, all the while knowing he may be just a few months from retirement as well.
"You're on the back nine, absolutely," Suggs said, "but you're still one of the guys in the clubhouse, so you just enjoy it all. And when it's time for me to be one of you all [in the media], it ain't gonna be as awesome as this, you know what I'm saying? So you just have fun with it."
And with that Suggs took a few more questions and then headed back to the locker room for the last time this spring before the veterans were sent home (rookies will report for two more weeks). On the way in team president Dick Cass shook Suggs' hand and wished him well on his vacation and inevitable return home to Arizona.
"I'm not going anywhere," Suggs said. "I'm going to be around here."