When San Diego Chargers offensive tackle Jared Gaither looks across the line of scrimmage Sunday night to block Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, he will see his past, present and, hopefully, his future.
At one time, Suggs, now in his ninth season, was like Gaither. He had unlimited potential but sulked over contract talks and didn't work hard during the offseason. Fortunately for Suggs, the Ravens kept him around because he was a first-round draft pick in 2003.
Gaither, in his fifth season, was a fifth-round pick in the 2007 supplemental draft out of Maryland. He was expendable because the investment in him was minimal, so the Ravens allowed him to become a free agent after four seasons.
Gaither says he holds no animosity.
"Not at all, they are a great organization," Gaither said. "Like you said, [Ravens general manager] Ozzie [Newsome] gave me my start, and I'm very appreciative for it."
On why he didn't stick in Baltimore, Gaither said: "I'm not sure. I wouldn't speculate or waste my time trying to guess or wonder. You just have to move on, and I've done so. Now I am here with the Chargers."
But both the Ravens and Gaither know why it didn't work out. After three years of starting at left tackle, Gaither and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, chose in the spring of 2010 to ask for a new, lucrative contract from the Ravens.
Newsome said no, and with good reason. Gaither had shown the same poor work ethic in offseason workouts with the Ravens as he did in the class room and on the field at Maryland, which forced his early departure.
Once Newsome declined to negotiate, Gaither pouted. He didn't attend mini camps, which forced coach John Harbaugh to switch right tackle Michael Oher to left tackle.
Then, when training camp opened, Gaither reported looking more like an NBA power forward than a tackle after losing 30 pounds. He got overpowered a lot and later suffered back spasms that eventually were diagnosed as being caused by a thoracic disc injury.
On Oct. 23, 2010, the Ravens put Gaither on injured reserve, virtually ending his Ravens career.
Suggs went through a similar experience. He was designated the team's franchise player for two seasons before the Ravens signed him to a $62 million contract for the 2009 season.
Once signed, Suggs allowed his weight to balloon, and he had only 4.5 sacks in 2009. He vowed never to play that poorly again.
"He was a good tackle here for us," Suggs said of Gaither. "Of course, the business side of it got in the way of us having him. It's going to be two good teams out there on 'Sunday Night Football.' We're going to go out there, and we're going to play. It's going to be what it is."
Suggs leads the Ravens with 13 sacks this season and is being mentioned as a Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year candidate. After the poor season in 2009, Suggs started paying more attention to those advising him.
Inside linebacker Ray Lewis told Suggs about the importance of film study. Coach Ted Monachino emphasized technique, and former Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary stressed adding more moves to his arsenal instead of being just a speed rusher.
What you have in 2011 is an outside linebacker who can influence a game because of his strong work ethic and great desire.
"He is a good defensive end, good outside linebacker, pass rusher. He is a good player," Gaither said of Suggs. "He can pretty much do it all. That's why he is up for Defensive Player of the Year. I'm looking forward to the matchup."
Gaither can become as dominant if he wants. All the physical tools are there — the frame, the weight and the athleticism.
In Baltimore, Gaither had the misfortune of replacing Jonathan Ogden, the best left tackle to ever play the game. Gaither will never be on that level, but being a notch or two below is pretty good.
Gaither was cut by the Kansas Chiefs on Nov. 29 after committing a key penalty, and the Chargers claimed him off waivers. He has played well the past two games in filling in for the injured Marcus McNeill.
Maybe the Kansas City experience was a wake-up call.
"They [the Chiefs] brought up some young guys," Gaither said. "Obviously, they are trying different things, and now they fired their coach [Todd Haley], so they have some things they have to figure out, obviously."
Chargers coach Norv Turner said: "I knew he was athletic and I knew he'd played, but he's been great for us the last two games and played good against Jacksonville with very short notice and then … I thought he played better this last week against Buffalo.
"He's a big man [with] long arms, and he's a very good athlete, so he's kind of bailed us out. I don't know where we would have been without him. I don't think we would have won the last two games, and I think we would have continued to struggle to protect the quarterback."
This is probably the turning point for Gaither. He is 25 and acknowledged he has gone through some growing pains.
"I have definitely matured, just through lessons throughout the seasons and the NFL," Gaither said. "Even leaving different teams and going to different teams, you learn more. As I said, I am getting older, and with age, you do mature more.
"I am blessed each and every day I wake up and I am able to play this game at a high level. I am blessed with that and very thankful to be in the best business in football, which is the NFL."