Most professional athletes have an expiration date stamped on their athleticism.
Nobody knows exactly what that date is because it varies for everyone. But as they mature, there is a point where athletes lose half a step in speed and reaction time, or the muscles don’t fire off the same as they did earlier in their careers.
Many admit their bodies take an extra day or two to recover, and that’s usually when NFL teams put them out to pasture.
No matter the sport, every athlete knows that time is coming, but the ones who struggle the most with it are the top-tier performers, the elite athletes who once were All-Pros and Pro Bowl players.
At one point that was Melvin Ingram, a 2012 first-round pick who has produced 51 sacks in his 10 NFL seasons, most of which were spent with the Chargers. Ingram, who can play both defensive end and outside linebacker, found a resurgence late last season with the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Dolphins signed the three-time Pro Bowl pass rusher to a one-year deal worth $3.9 million in the offseason, hoping he can become a situational pass rusher and mentor to the team’s relatively young defenders. But Ingram, who sat out the entire offseason program nursing an undisclosed injury, is eager to prove he can still be an impactful player.
An in his mind, that means he needs to compete for a prominent role on defense.
“I’m still me. I don’t like to talk nobody head off. I’m going to still show you,” said Ingram, who had 25 tackles and two sacks in the 592 snaps he played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chiefs last season. “I’m going to still be me. Once I’m not [impactful] anymore it’s time for me to go home.”
That’s part of the reason Ingram forced his way onto the field during 11-on-11 drills on the first day of training camp, even though he was supposed to be progressively worked into those physical portions of practice later on in training camp.
“We had planned to not have him in team periods, just so we don’t rush the process and make sure that we don’t put him in harm’s way. And, he was fighting tooth and nail with the defensive coaches, in general, and they let the guy in for a couple plays,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said. “That’s what you want [from] a leader on the team, or a veteran player that’s had production. You want to be on the field. You want younger players to understand it’s a privilege to be on the field.”
And oftentimes, the veteran needs those reps to prove to himself, coaches and teammates that he’s still got it.
Ingram’s working to do just that, consistently showcasing the unique twist and body bend he uses to get around offensive tackles on pass rushing plays.
He’s used that body bend to turn the corner, causing havoc on the field for years, and it seems he’s focused on passing that rush move onto his teammates, teaching Jaelan Phillips and some of his younger teammates the trick of their trade.
There have been multiple instances during the first week of practice when Ingram was spotted coaching up his fellow linebackers and pass rushers.
“He’s been mentoring me some, taking me under his wing,” said Phillips, who set a franchise record for sacks by a Dolphins rookie (8.5) last season.
The Dolphins are hopeful that a pass rushing specialist like Ingram will not only complement Phillips by lining up across from him on obvious pass rushing downs, but also teach him the finer points of chasing down quarterbacks and studying opponents.
“You got to be a student of the game,” Ingram stressed. “Football is really like 85 percent mental. You have to know what’s going on, and what’s going to happen. If I were going to punch you and you knew it, you would duck.
“Day in and day out [it’s about] working your craft. It’s all about controlling what you can control.”
The one thing Ingram has realized he can’t control is his body, and how he feels after every practice and game, especially now that he’s 33.
He’s spent the past two years working his way back from a persistent knee issue that sideswiped his 2020 season, limiting him to seven games, and leading to Ingram being viewed as damaged goods in free agency the past two offseasons.
“Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game,” said Ingram, who has amassed 119 quarterback hits in 128 games during his 10-year career. “When healthy I know who I am, and what I’m capable of.”