New Raven Calais Campbell's biggest challenge is battling age

AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, File

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- As the major new addition to the Baltimore Ravens' defense, Calais Campbell needs to beat such offensive tackles as Jack Conklin and Alejandro Villanueva in the AFC North.

Campbell’s biggest battle, however, is against his age. At 33, Campbell is the second-oldest defensive lineman currently under contract. Only New York Jets nose tackle Steve McLendon is older at 34.

Whenever an NFL player reaches this point of his career, the concerns about performance increase along with the questions about retirement. Former Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs often called this time “the back nine” of his career.

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Campbell wants to make sure he’s honest with himself and always goes back to study his film from the previous year. He believes he’s in his “ultimate prime,” and his numbers back it up.

Over the past two decades, Campbell is one of three players to total more than 200 tackles and 30 sacks with multiple touchdowns after the age of 30. The others were Julius Peppers and Jason Taylor.

"I can still do everything I want to do, and I can come away or do something in a game situation that nobody does,” Campbell said in a conference call with Baltimore media. "That’s when I’ll start worrying, when I can’t do what I want to do. But as of now, I did trim my body up to make sure that I can have control over my body and do what I want to do. I just felt like mentally, though, I’m so much more advanced than I have been in the past, and I think your prime is when you have the athleticism to take over a game, and the mentality to take over a game and the understanding of how to do it both at a high level. So, for me, my mindset has never been better; my understanding of the game and my matchup and how to win is at an all-time high, and my body can still do it.”

Campbell feels he’s much better than in his younger days. There have been improvements in his anticipation as well as his technique in terms of playing with a lower pad level. Sure, he was more athletic a decade ago, but he hasn’t lost his flexibility.

Critics will point to Campbell’s decline in sacks over the past three seasons, from 14.5 to 10.5 to 6.5. But Campbell had the NFL’s fourth-highest pass rush win rate last season among players double-teamed at least 200 times. Campbell’s 16.4% success rate ranked only behind Aaron Donald (23.5%), Grady Jarrett (21.3%) and Chris Jones (18.4%).

"I’m pretty confident that as long as I can take care of my body, I should be able to be dominant in the near future,” Campbell said. "... For me, I know the whole world tries to tell you that one day it’s going to stop, but I know there are guys who did it at a high level who were older than me, so it can be done.”

Campbell has already shown how much of an immediate impact he can make. In the year before signing Campbell from the Arizona Cardinals, the Jaguars ranked 19th with 33 sacks in 2016. In the first season with Campbell, Jacksonville produced the second-most sacks in the league with 55.

The Ravens, who traded a fifth-round pick for Campbell on March 15, are banking on Campbell elevating their pass-rush this season after managing 37 sacks in 2019.

“Calais is a player we have long admired, even going back to the draft when he came out of college,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said. “He’s a natural fit for our defense and a versatile player who plays like a Raven.”

The respect is mutual, and Campbell proved it financially. Before free agency began, Campbell was informed four to five teams were interested in him. If he wanted to go to Baltimore, he would have to sign an extension and do it at a discounted rate.

“At the end of the day, I was more confident going to Baltimore even if I have to take less than going to another place,” Campbell said. "There are not many teams better. Baltimore went 14-2 last year and is a very talented, young team [with] a core nucleus of guys. This team could be very special for a good while here.”

Campbell signed a two-year, $25 million deal with Baltimore, and not everyone was happy with the contract. His agent believed Campbell could have received more than the $20 million guaranteed, which ranks 21st among defensive ends.

But Campbell has only been on a playoff team in six of his 12 NFL seasons. The past two years, he suffered through 21 losses in Jacksonville.

Given his age, Campbell believed he gained more in taking less.

"I told [my agent] at this point in time in my career the main goal for me is winning,” Campbell said. "... I'm going to be 34 when the season starts, and that motivation when you're training, starting to put the work in to be the best you can be, it gets harder and harder each year. And when you believe you can win, when you believe you have a chance to win a Super Bowl, it makes it just a little bit easier."