When the Ravens hit the fields of the Under Armour Performance Center under a blazing afternoon sun Tuesday, the difference between an Organized Team Activity practice and a mandatory minicamp instantly was apparent.
The M-word (mandatory) brought out the heavyweights, the team's veteran stars, some of whom had skipped all or part of the OTA season, which is voluntary. Terrell Suggs, Marshal Yanda and Elvis Dumervil were in the house, balancing out a practice lineup that had been dominated in recent weeks by younger players, for whom spring workouts are more crucial.
Team elders such as Justin Forsett, Steve Smith Sr. and Joe Flacco, all of whom regularly attended OTAs, also were present, and watching the 2015 Ravens gather en masse for the first time, it was hard not to notice how much the Ravens will still depend on thirtysomethings this season despite a youth movement that has significantly lowered the team's average age since 2012.
Smith, the most accomplished receiver, is 36. Suggs and Dumervil, the heart of the pass rush, are 32 and 31. Yanda, the most decorated offensive lineman, is 30. Daryl Smith, the second-leading tackler last season, is 33. Forsett, the top running back, turns 30 in October.
There's more. Chris Canty, expected to provide leadership for a young defensive interior, is 32. So is punter Sam Koch. Flacco's new backup, Matt Schaub, is 33.
Sure, the team is also counting on a slew of younger players such as linebacker C.J.Mosley, 22; guard Kelechi Osemele, 25; defensive linemen Brandon Williams, 26, and Timmy Jernigan, 22; kicker Justin Tucker, 25; and rookie pass catchers Breshad Perriman, 21, and Maxx Williams, 21. Jimmy Smith, the top pass defender, has been around awhile, but he's just 26.
In many respects, young players now dominate the depth chart.
But the Ravens still need big things from their thirtysomethings to get where they want to go in 2015.
It's not a new situation for the organization, which relied on iconic players such as Ray Lewis, Jonathon Ogden and Ed Reed to hold things together for years while the roster continually turned over. Suggs and Yanda are simply the latest homegrown stars to become anchors, while Forsett, Dumervil and Daryl Smith joined the Ravens relatively recently after years with other teams.
But regardless of how they got to this point with this team, they're veterans being counted on in 2015.
It's all by design, part of GM Ozzie Newsome's blueprint, and most teams would love to have the same blend of youth and age, fresh legs and wise heads. I think you need both to win.
But as Suggs intimated in his blunt remarks to reporters Tuesday, veteran players don't go on forever.
"I'm definitely on the back nine," Suggs said with a grin.
The Ravens don't mind that. Like all teams, they'll worry about next season when it comes. Right now, all they want is what they're expecting from their veterans THIS season.
When practice began Tuesday, Forsett looked like a youngster who hadn't been selected for a pickup game. While his teammates went through drills, he stood alone on the sideline with his helmet on, pacing and gently limbering u.
But it actually was the opposite of punishment. Forsett, it seems, simply was being afforded the same privilege that prior star Ravens such as Anquan Boldin were given – the chance to warm up as he wanted.
It was the latest example of how far Forsett has come. A year ago at the mandatory minicamp, he was an afterthought, ranked far down the depth chart. But after leading the Ravens in rushing in 2014, making the Pro Bowl and signing a free agent contact, he's a headliner.
I don't think the Ravens need to worry about him relaxing now that he's established. They brought him back partly because he's so driven and such an effective mentor. On Tuesday, he consistently exhibited the same form that allowed him to thrive. On one play, he took a handoff, waited for a hole to open, cut sharply through it and burst into the secondary. Then he "ran out" the play by himself, sprinting 30 yards downfield.
Even in June, he's a pleasure to watch.
The Ravens would love to see Perriman, their top draft pick, become a starter, and they're certainly giving him every chance to develop. On Tuesday, he ran pass routes with both the first and second teams, making him almost a nonstop participant at times.
Near the end of the two-hour-plus session, he came to the sideline, bent over, and took a long drink of water as sweat poured off his chin.
"They're working me," he said with a smile after practice. "It's good work. I'm getting used to it."