As his fellow defensive linemen worked through various in-game situations at Ravens' minicamp Tuesday, Haloti Ngata remained mostly on the sidelines. The mammoth defensive tackle ran some sprints and performed a variety of stretches but he spent most of the workout off to the side watching his teammates.
It's not exactly where the Ravens want to see one of their most accomplished defensive players. However, training camp is still about a month and a half away and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh believes that Ngata is "right where he needs to be."
"He's in good shape. He's fine," Harbaugh said. "… It looks to me like he's had a good offseason and he's right on schedule."
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Ngata, a four-time Pro Bowl selection who Harbaugh said is the player the organization has tried to build the defensive line around, estimated that he is about 80 to 85 percent recovered from the sprained left knee that knocked him out early in the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVII.
He decided to rehab the injury rather than have surgery. As a result, Ngata resumed running two to three weeks ago. Ngata was a limited participant at organized team activities last week and his status probably won't change through this week's mandatory three-day minicamp.
"Hopefully, I'll be pretty close when training camp comes," said Ngata, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 330 pounds though he played at a higher weight than that last season. "I definitely just want to come [to camp] in great shape. After this minicamp, these next five weeks are going to be really important for me to make sure I'm in really good shape to come in and participate in camp."
When Ngata reported to minicamp last June, looking significantly heavier than the year before, he said that he intentionally bulked up because he was tired of sustaining injuries and wearing down toward the end of the season.
The extra weight brought added scrutiny and didn't help Ngata avoid injuries last season as he battled a bum shoulder and then sore knees and missed two games for the first time in three seasons. Ngata had his moments and continued to attract much attention from opposing offensive lines, but he wasn't the consistent disruptive threat that he had been for much of his Ravens' career.
The theories on why included questions about whether his increased weight led to less explosiveness, his myriad injuries, the constant double teams and even Ngata needing to play out of position at times at defensive end.
Ngata finished with 51 tackles, tying for the second lowest in his seven-season career. He added five sacks, just a half sack off his career high, but he did not force or recover a fumble.
"I think Haloti has done well," Harbaugh said. "Haloti's one of the premier players in the National Football League. He did a great job last year taking a lot of reps. [He] took a lot of reps. He played very well, and when he was out there, he made his impact felt. Sure, he fought through a couple of bumps and bruises and more. I thought he did real well with that. The healthier he is, the better he is going to be."
In an effort to reduce some of the burden on Ngata, the Ravens went out this offseason and signed defensive end Chris Canty (6-7, 317 pounds) and defensive tackle Marcus Spears (6-4, 315). They also used a third-round pick on nose tackle Brandon Williams (6-1, 335).
With Arthur Jones and DeAngelo Tyson having another year of experience under their belt and nose tackle Terrence Cody expecting to be healthier after having offseason hip surgery, the defensive line is suddenly one of the Ravens' deepest positions and Ngata is free to remain on the inside — either at nose or defensive tackle — which is where he feels most comfortable.
"Just because of my body type, the way I play, I'm explosive, quick inside," Ngata said. "Outside, d-tackles are vacating the line of scrimmage. I'm not fast enough to catch up. Inside, I'm just able to get my hands on guards and centers and do what I want with them pretty much. Playing defensive end, it's too much space for me. I like the guys around me."
Above all, Ngata would just like to feel healthy again. He said that he's felt good at the start of the past two seasons, but then the injuries — a sprain here, a slight tear there — have caught up to him, robbing him of his explosiveness to get off the line of scrimmage and his power to shed blockers. He was especially frustrated late last season, but his perseverance was ultimately rewarded with a Super Bowl ring.
"I think a lot of [the injuries] is playing so many reps throughout a game," Ngata said. "That's why I'm so excited I have these new guys [to] come in and help me out where I can make more plays with less amount of snaps."
Ultimately though, Ngata knows that the Ravens need him on the field, healthy and in shape and back to being the every-down force that made him one of the league's best defensive tackles.
Linebacker Ray Lewisand safety Ed Reed, the Ravens' long-time defensive leaders, have both moved on, leaving Ngata and linebacker Terrell Suggs to carry the mantle for the defense. Suggs showed up at this week's minicamp looking healthy and in great shape after his 2012 season was marred by Achilles' surgery.
Ngata is not there yet, but he feels that it is an attainable goal.
"With Terrell Suggs, I think he's more of an outspoken guy than I am," said Ngata. "I just go as he goes. Whatever he needs me to do, I'll just do it. I'll just go by example for the younger guys, and he'll be the voice, I guess."