The Ravens began their optional offseason training program Monday — the key word being optional.

It was up to the players whether they wanted to return to Baltimore to conduct offseason workouts, and, despite the option to say no, many Ravens made their way back from their offseason adventures to Owings Mills.

Team leaders on the offense and defense, including quarterback Lamar Jackson and linebacker Roquan Smith, participated, as did newly signed star running back Derrick Henry.

Strength and conditioning coordinator Scott Elliott described the energy among the participants as having an edge to it. He said he was impressed by the condition of the players. In fact, he’s “never been more excited in April for Lamar Jackson.”

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Here are takeaways from the first three days of training.

New kid on the block

Henry comes “as advertised,” Elliott said. He had to let the “awe factor” wear off when he met the Ravens’ blockbuster offseason addition.

Smith is familiar with Henry’s size, strength and speed, having gone against him over the years. He said the offense, now that it has Henry and Jackson playing side by side, “is going to be scary.” For other teams, that is. Smith is going to enjoy being on the same team as Henry.

“I told a couple of my friends in the offseason, maybe I’ll have to get some popcorn on the sideline while I’m watching those guys go to work,” Smith said.

Henry’s success takes a lot of hard work and conditioning — he’s the best example of what Elliott means when he says he wants players to approach the weight room with intent. He’s a veteran and knows his craft, and Elliott is happy to help him hone it.

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“That’s why what we’re going to help him do is keep that same trajectory,” Elliott said. “He’s had one heck of a career. Our goal is that it gets even better from here. [It’s] not age, not years of service — none of that. He keeps getting better and better, and it’s his work ethic.”

Henry said it was important to him to show up for these workouts so that he can get to know his teammates. He was with the Tennessee Titans for all eight years of his career. These players know him by reputation and as an opponent, but as the “new guy,” he wants them to see what he’s like behind the scenes.

“I want to make sure that I show up and I show my team and show this organization I’m here, I’m committed. I want to come work and want to put the work in and be around my teammates and develop that relationship with them and really just put the work in and work as hard as I can when I’m in the building,” Henry said.

Henry has had fun getting to know everybody and said he was impressed with the team’s leaders, Jackson and Smith. He added that everyone flocks to Jackson, which speaks to his leadership.

Henry’s welcome to Baltimore was made even sweeter when Jimmy’s Famous Seafood (which some players recommended to The Baltimore Banner last season) greeted him with free crab cakes for life and a sushi roll named after him.

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“It was fire,” Henry said of the “HenRoll.” “I went to try [the crab cakes] on Monday. They were pretty good, so I hope that [deal’s] true. I hope I’m able to come and get me some more in the future. Their seafood was pretty good.”

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Ever evolving

Coach John Harbaugh always says he wants the Ravens to be the strongest team in the NFL, Elliott said. Harbaugh took a step toward that in February 2023 when he moved on from former strength and conditioning coordinator Steve Saunders and elevated Elliott.

Without criticizing Saunders, players told The Banner the program has taken a step forward under Elliott.

One of Elliott’s biggest successes, he self-evaluated, was the increased engagement between players and the weight room. He saw an understanding among the players “that we’re here to work for them and with them.” He also saw success in the recovery techniques they implemented through training camp and the season, as well as the individualized approach they took with each player.

Heading into Year 2, Elliott wants to build off those successes while staying on the cutting edge. One of his main focuses, he said, will be the programming — at what point they get into different types of training.

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This year, Elliott said, they’re starting with a two-pronged focus of on-the field activities and weight room exercises. Off the field, they have a “mobility and activation focus,” while in the weight room they’re trying to build “structural balance.”

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“We’re working everything from max acceleration or max velocity, acceleration, change of direction, [deceleration] and then into tissue prep with conditioning, cardiovascular conditioning, that’s going to carry us through Phase 1 into Phase 2, OTAs,” Elliott said of organized team activities.

“In the weight room, we’re working on structural balance, so we’re really trying to build a base — so front to back, left to right – [and] something we can lay down as the foundation to go into more of a power phase,” Elliott said. “I look at these guys as skyscrapers, in the sense of, they’re larger than life, so with that — with a skyscraper — you’ve got to dig down deep, [and] you’ve got to have a foundation that supports that.”

Availability is the best ability

It’s an old saying that’s been proven time and again. The Ravens added more proof last season, when overall health aided the team in its league-best, regular-season performance.

There were injuries, but the Ravens were a relatively healthy team. Although luck plays a part in it, the injury rate is often used to evaluate the success of the strength and conditioning program.

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“We had a great year in that regard; we had great preparation,” Elliott said.

How can a team prepare its players for the unexpected?

“There are a couple things that play into that: strength through full ranges of motion — I put a high priority on — and then, in a controlled environment, putting them in positions and in places that we can strengthen, so that when they’re put in it out in a dynamic environment, they’ve been there before, because injury can occur when the body is put in places that it hadn’t been before, and it’s got to react,” Elliott said.

One more game

Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith (0) says he and other players are motivated by their loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Standing beneath a newly raised AFC North banner that evokes memories of the team falling short last season, Smith shared his determination for the players to improve upon their performance.

Every time, Smith would choose having his heart ripped out with a Super Bowl loss than to exit the playoffs the way the Ravens did with their underwhelming 17-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game.

“To come up short, it sucks,” Smith said. But the team has no choice but to turn the page, and Smith is ready to get back at it.

“At the end of the day, that’s just more fuel to the fire,” Smith said. “I’m sure it’s going to inspire and fuel each and every guy that was here last year to know that we have to do what it takes to get us over the hump this year.”

As much as Smith would love to jump right back onto the field, he said he knows there’s a process that has to happen. And that process starts in the weight room.

While Jackson, according to Harbaugh, immediately dissected the Ravens’ final performance and identified solutions, center Tyler Linderbaum said Jackson hasn’t shared those thoughts with him. But he and the offensive line, which is going to look very different next year, already have an idea of what they need to do.

“We don’t need to really worry about much. We just have to block the guy in front of us and work together,” Linderbaum said.

He decided to start building that base in the weight room. Most Ravens did. But those who didn’t are hard at work despite being scattered, Linderbaum and Smith said, because they all want to make sure they don’t fall one game short next season.

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