BALTIMORE - Instead of wincing in pain, Haloti Ngata walked off the field with a broad smile.
The Baltimore Ravens had just completed the first session of their three-day mandatory offseason camp, and Ngata couldn't remember the last time he felt that good after practice.
"I feel great this year," Ngata declared Tuesday. "This is definitely a different feel."
Two years ago, Ngata was tormented by a shoulder injury. He played in 14 games, but acknowledged that he was at far less than 100 percent.
He completed that 2012 season in the Super Bowl, and although Baltimore won the game, Ngata sprained his knee. The injury impacted his preparation for 2013.
In spite of those mishaps, Ngata has been named to the Pro Bowl in five straight seasons. As he heads into his ninth season, the 30-year-old isn't as spry as he used to be. But he's surrounded by young players, which should make life easier for the 6-foot-4, 340-pounder.
"It's huge, having some depth on the D-line," Ngata said. "I can probably rest a little bit more and be stronger in the fourth quarter."
Ngata's game can't be measured solely in tackles, because his job is to jam the middle of the line and clear a path for the linebackers behind him. It's a role he played to perfection many years in front of Ray Lewis and last season for Daryl Smith, who led the Ravens in tackles.
This year, however, Ngata intends to add another dimension to his game. He had only 1 1/2 sacks last year and has never had more than 5 1/2 -- figures he expects to enhance in 2014.
"Last year was definitely a down year in sacks," he said. "Hopefully I can get more and work on my craft and get better and better, maybe get double-digit sacks. That's something I've never done."
If Ngata takes down the quarterback, that's a bonus. Elvis Dumervil had 9 1/2 sacks last year, and he's counting on even more help from Ngata this season.
"The big guy looks good, man. It's good to see him feeling better," Dumervil said. "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. Having the big guy ready to roll, that's a good thing to hear."
Center Jeremy Zuttah was signed during the offseason by Baltimore as a free agent after spending six years with Tampa Bay. He's delighted to have Ngata on his side now, even if he has to go up against him in practice.
"He's quite a player," Zuttah said. "He's so big, and at the same time he moves like one of the quicker guys in the league. To be able to go out there and face that type of player every day is just going to be a great experience for me."
For most of his career, Ngata quietly went about his job while Lewis and Terrell Suggs fired up the defense. Ngata was content to lead by example, playing in pain and grinding in the trenches without fanfare.
This year, things just might be different.
"I'm not much of a vocal guy," Ngata said. "But I've probably got to get out of my comfort zone and speak up more and rally up these younger guys to play to the best of their ability."
It's a good thought. Whether it happens, well, that remains to be seen.
"Haloti is not going to change his personality," coach John Harbaugh said. "I've always felt like he was a great leader according to his personality. He works hard and he talks to guys. I think he'll continue to do what he's always done. If he feels like he needs to talk a little bit more, that would great. We love hearing from him. Every time he has something to say, it's something that's worth listening to."
Ngata arrived in Baltimore as the 12th overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft. His latest contract expires after next season, but there's talk that he could soon be signed to an extension.
"I would love to be a Raven for life," he said. "If we can get something done that would be great."