If there was an actual, Food Network-style recipe for the Ravens' 2013 defense, it would go something like this:
Take a safety from the Oakland Raiders, a Pro Bowl pass rusher from the Denver Broncos, a defensive tackle from the New York Giants, a linebacker from the Jacksonville Jaguars and a defensive tackle from the Dallas Cowboys, and throw them in a pot.
Toss in a rookie safety who is a first-round draft pick, a rookie linebacker who is a second-round pick and a rookie nose guard who is a third-round pick, and continue to simmer until the mixture is properly blended, then pour it over the remaining ingredients from the 2012 defense, which include an All-Pro tackle and the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Voila! Serve hot and prepare to defend your Super Bowl title.
The recipe was on display for the first time this week as the Ravens held their mandatory minicamp, and continuing the metaphor, the defense looked, well, pretty delicious. Several of the new ingredients stood out. Chris Canty, the tackle from the Giants, was gigantic and athletic, a nifty combo. Matt Elam, the rookie safety, made a handful of plays. Daryl Smith, the veteran linebacker from the Jaguars, fit in so quickly he was calling the signals, as if he had been here for years.
Although drawing conclusions from a minicamp is a bad idea, the defense generally seemed to outplay its offensive counterpart, which is a good sign. Both units are seeking to forge new chemistry after losing key starters, and the defense is facing the greater challenge, with more positions in transition. It's not too soon to get the mixture simmering.
But I came away from the minicamp with one overriding thought about the defense – while the immediate focus is on what's new, the success of the recipe will depend, in the end, on the ingredients that were already here.
For these many pieces from many places to come together as successfully as possible, the Ravens need their familiar cornerstones to play up to billing. In simple terms, they need Terrell Suggs to be Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata to be Haloti Ngata – i.e., performing at their customary Pro Bowl levels, not only leading the unit but bringing it together.
They're still the Ravens' biggest stars on that side of the ball, the ones with the talent to dominate and the track record of having done so. Neither was at his best in 2012, Suggs because he was returning from an Achilles tear and Ngata because he also dealt with injuries and often had to play out of position as the team's interior uncharacteristically struggled. But with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed gone and Elvis Dumervil the only newcomer who is a bona fide Pro Bowler, the Ravens really need their biggest stars back in form.
I would even say the recipe for 2013 is based on Suggs, 30, and Ngata, 29, leading the unit. One of the main reasons the interior was upgraded was so Ngata wouldn't have to play out of position anymore. And the twinning of Suggs and Dumervil obviously is being counted on to wreak havoc.
(While we're at it, the unit could also stand for Lardarius Webb to be Lardarius Webb again as the cornerback returns from the second ACL tear of his career.)
The health report from minicamp was mixed. Suggs might be in the best shape of his career and said he was ready for a strong comeback showing. But Ngata was only recently able to start jogging after rehabbing the sprained knee suffered in the Super Bowl.
Both players certainly have plenty of motivation to play well in 2013 and beyond. Their longterm contracts are now producing huge salaries that the team will gladly pay if warranted, but the Ravens have shown they won't hesitate to cut ties if a salary stops making sense to them. The pressure is on any player making a lot of money.
But beyond any financial concerns, Suggs and Ngata are pro's pros who want to leave memorable legacies. With a fabled but changing defense in their hands now, they're vital ingredients, at the heart of the recipe. The team needs them to shine.