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Top picks Ogden, Lewis instantly valuable for Ravens

The Baltimore Sun

They did not perform like typical freshmen as collegiate players, and as first-year players in the NFL, left guard Jonathan Ogden and inside linebacker Ray Lewis do not seem like rookies anymore.

Then again, the consensus in the Ravens' locker room is that Ogden and Lewis never were looked upon as rookies in the first place. Judging by the responsibilities they have handled as the top two picks in the Ravens' inaugural draft, Ogden and Lewis are growing up fast, indeed.

Consider that a little more than halfway through their rookie seasons, they already are fixtures on offense and defense, having started every game. One probably has to go back to the organization's 1978 draft, when the Cleveland Browns selected linebacker Clay Matthews and a tight end named Ozzie Newsome in the first round, to find a pair of players who have had such an immediate impact.

Take Ogden. As the fourth player chosen, out of UCLA, he was far and away the best offensive lineman available in the draft -- not to mention the most imposing at 6 feet 8, 320 pounds.

Since they had veteran Tony Jones at left tackle, Ogden's lifelong position, the Ravens moved the rookie inside to left guard, where he has established himself as a force for the future. Most of that future will be played out at left tackle, but for now, Ogden has retained his superb pass-blocking skills inside and refined his run blocking to the point where, except for his unusual height and long arms, he looks like a guard.

"He's one of those guys who has the ability and intelligence to play any position on the line we asked him to play," coach Ted Marchibroda said. "He's done the job all year."

Ogden has yet to give up a sack and has been penalized only once for holding. As for his mobility, which he can use more in the open space that the tackle position provides, Ogden has shown he can run with anyone, even as a guard. Remember him rumbling past running back Earnest Byner two weeks ago to knock Rams cornerback Todd Lyght out of the picture, helping Byner complete a 40-yard screen pass?

"From the moment Jonathan arrived, there was no doubt he felt like he could play up here. He's already dominating, and he's just starting out," said Byner, who compared Ogden to former Washington Redskins great Joe Jacoby. "His mentality is not one of a rookie. Great competitive edge to go with the talent he has. He has a handle on whatever situation comes up."

Any questions about Ogden's toughness also have been answered. Three weeks ago in Denver, he missed the second half with a sprained knee. The injury flared in the middle of the Ravens' 37-31 victory over St. Louis the following week. Ogden limped off the field badly, then returned to play through the fifth quarter the Ravens needed to win.

Ogden sat at his locker after a recent practice, talking about the rigors of his first NFL season. His knee aches, as does the shoulder that has been sore for weeks. He already has played 12 games, including the preseason. Were he still in college, his season would be over. But the stretch run of his rookie year is just beginning.

"It's gone the way I expected it to go. I came into this league expecting it to be the most difficult challenge of my life, and it pretty much has been," Ogden said.

"Every week, there is someone I have to block who is an expert at this or that. In my mind, I've graded about average. I don't think I've played exceptionally well, but I think I've done a lot better than some of the NFL guards I've watched on film. At the same time, I'm not as dominating as I want to be, partly because I'm tired. It's a long season, and I'm just trying to make it through."

Said center Steve Everitt of Ogden: "Physically, he's gotten banged up the last few weeks, but mentally he's been on top of his game the whole time. I don't know where you would find a real fault with his game at this point, and he's proved his toughness. He's already to the point where he could hang in there against Mean Joe Greene. I wish my arms were a foot longer, like his. There are a lot of big, goofy 6-8 guys walking around, but not many of them can move like him."

The transition for Lewis has not been quite as smooth, for several reasons. Before training camp, the Ravens released 10-year veteran middle linebacker Pepper Johnson and handed the keys to the 4-3 defense over to Lewis, the 26th overall pick in the draft.

That's a lot to ask of any rookie, even a guy who was among the nation's top linebackers for three stellar seasons at Miami, where Lewis recorded 17 tackles in his first game as a true freshman and never looked back during an All-America career.

Then there is Lewis' size. At 6-1, 235, he has run into his share of problems taking on linemen and blocking backs who bring more beef to the battle than Lewis provides. And it hasn't helped that the defensive line -- which should keep blockers off Lewis -- has been decimated by injuries.

"Nobody walks into this league and becomes an All-Pro in one minute, and Ray understands that he's going through growing pains," said linebackers coach Maxie Baughan. "We put a lot of faith in Ray to start with. He's responded by giving us everything XTC we've wanted from him. He's played as well and as hard as he can play."

Lewis' instincts and quickness to the ball, particularly in lateral pursuit, have been impressive since the season opener, when he earned Defensive Player of the Week honors in a 19-14 victory over the Oakland Raiders. He leads the Ravens with 92 tackles, 67 solo, and he has added four pass deflections and an interception.

He has tailed off a bit in recent weeks, although Lewis, who has never stopped hustling, dismissed fatigue as a factor in his rookie year.

"Everybody keeps talking about hitting the wall, but I don't believe in that," Lewis said. "You set your mind for whatever your job requires. I've set my mind for a 16-game season. I knew I was one of the top draft picks, so I had to set my mind to knowing I was going to play more. I've got my nicks and bruises. Other than that, I'm all right."

Lewis received his most memorable growing pain during the Ravens' 29-13 loss in Houston on Sept. 15. The Ravens were backed up against their goal line, and when Lewis stepped into the hole to stop a running play, Houston tight end Frank Wycheck, who had pulled from the other side, bent Lewis backward with a jarring block. Lewis, in much discomfort, could barely talk after the game.

Two days later, Lewis was running at the Ravens' complex. The next day, he practiced.

That toughness impressed veteran safety Bennie Thompson, who took a liking to Lewis in training camp. Thompson admires the way Lewis never gives up on a play, for example by hustling downfield to tackle a receiver when many linebackers could not get there, or would not try.

"Ray is still learning, but he does a lot more good things than bad," Thompson said. "He is going to be making plays in this league for a long time."

Marchibroda said the same thing about Ogden and Lewis.

"We probably placed too much of a burden on Ray as the signal caller, and he's had more of a learning process to go through," Marchibroda said. "They are both exactly what we thought they would be. They both enjoy the game, they both enjoy practice, and they're both talented athletes. They're special people."

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