Ravens Director of Performance Steve Saunders didn't feel like the most popular person at the Under Armour Performance Center last week. The new leader of Baltimore's strength and conditioning program overhauled the voluntary offseason workouts, and he gave players quite the welcome when they returned last week.
"Nobody has seemed to talk to me the past two days, which is a good sign," Saunders joked after the second day of workouts.
Players were buzzing about the new program Saunders implemented, and even his most loyal workout warriors noticed that the new workouts had a much different intensity.
Veteran safety Eric Weddle, who has trained with Saunders for the last year, could feel the difference two days into the program.
"Holy smokes, Steve is killing us in there with the running and the lifting," Weddle said. "I can guarantee you this: We will be the strongest, most in-shape Ravens team that this team has ever had."
Cornerback Jimmy Smith returned to Baltimore two weeks before the start of the voluntary workouts to get a feel for Saunders and the new program. After going through the workouts, Smith decided that he needs to stay in Baltimore the entire offseason.
"I came in here, and [Saunders] kicked my butt a couple times," Smith said. "I told my other trainer, 'I am going to work out here a couple weeks and check it out and make sure.' But, I am going to be here the whole offseason, just because of how good of a job he does with us."
The changes Saunders has made are significant. He had 45 machines removed from the weight room and he's grouping players based on what they need to get out of the program. The workouts are also tailored more to better resemble the energy players need to expend on the football field, rather than traditional weight training or running.
"It is high intensity. It is all you've got, 100-percent effort, and then you get a break. Then, you do it all again," Weddle said. "It is all about giving it everything you have for that rep and then you get a rest. It is just like how it is on the field – you give everything you've got, and then you get 25 or 30 seconds to rest and do it again.
"As a football player, I do not need to run 100, 200 [yards]. If I am running 100 yards, I should be cut. Because then I am getting beat. I do not need to be doing that. I need to be running 20, 30, 40 yards as fast as I can over and over and over at optimal energy and efficiency and speed. That alone is going to make us better."
Another piece of the equation is injury prevention. Saunders looks for where players have muscle imbalances, and then he designs the program to improve those deficiencies.
For a player like Smith, who has dealt with foot and ankle injuries, the workouts are built to improve and strengthen his legs to avoid future problems as much as possible.
"He really specializes in knowing exactly what each player needs to be stronger or whatever it is that you need, physically," Smith said. "I think that he does a good job in giving me extra exercises to get that all situated."
The competition is fierce during the workouts, and having attendance from veterans like Smith, Weddle, Joe Flacco and Mike Wallace helps set the tone for the rest of the group. Players will continue through the program until mid-June when the players get a break before training camp, and the Ravens are focused on getting as much as possible out of the program.
"Everybody is getting after it, and I think there is just a newfound energy in there and newfound enthusiasm, certainly intensity, and we're just going to keep building on that for the next three to nine weeks until everybody breaks for the summer," Saunders said.