SAN FRANCISCO -- Had he plotted a typical course to the NFL, Craig Powell would be winding up his senior year at Ohio State, probably as one of the nation's premier outside linebackers. But, with the homestretch of his second pro season ahead of him, Powell remains a mystery to the Ravens.
They wonder how soon he will shake off the injuries that have marred his young career and show the talent that compelled the organization to make him a first-round draft pick in 1995. They wonder how much of his potential will be fulfilled.
Heading into tomorrow's game against the 49ers (7-3) in San Francisco, what the Ravens (3-7) know is this: After coming back from a serious knee injury that ended his rookie season a month after it began in Cleveland last year, Powell has been invisible at outside linebacker for the Ravens.
He has yet to record a tackle in the limited time he's played on defense in 1996.
Rookie linebacker Sedric Clark, a seventh-round draft pick whom the Ravens signed off Kansas City's practice squad less than three weeks ago, has more tackles than Powell. Clark recorded a tackle in last week's 30-27 loss to Jacksonville, while Powell sat out with a sore shoulder.
On the bright side, Powell has been solid on special teams with eight tackles, second on the team. That's a long way from the training and weight rooms, where he spent the bulk of his rookie year Powell rehabilitating a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Powell has been relatively healthy in his second season, although he has experienced some complications. His right knee flared up on him early in training camp, when he dropped abruptly from first-string strong-side linebacker to a backup in defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis' new 4-3 scheme.
It has bothered him at times during the season. A sore shoulder has kept him out of action for the past two games but he is expected to play tomorrow.
"Last year was very frustrating, but this year has been frustrating for me, too," Powell said. "I've kind of been hurt for most of the season. I've just got to keep working hard, and I'll be back playing the kind of football they assumed I would be playing."
That sounds good to team owner Art Modell, who shelled out $2.9 million to sign Powell to a four-year contract after the Browns chose him late in the first round of the 1995 draft, following a draft-day trade with San Francisco. Powell's deal included a $610,000 signing bonus.
"I haven't seen hide nor hair of him. His recovery process has been painfully slow. Hopefully, he'll break out of it soon," said Modell, who has seen his defense devastated by injuries this year, including knee injuries to outside linebackers Jerrol Williams and Mike Croel. "A healthy, productive Craig Powell could have made a difference. For whatever reason, he hasn't surfaced yet."
Besides his physical setbacks, part of Powell's problem has been grasping the nuances of Lewis' system.
Lewis switched Powell to an unfamiliar spot in the 4-3. Then, in midseason, a rash of injuries forced Lewis to switch to a 3-4 alignment, which gave Powell more terminology problems.
"I'm used to playing weak-side linebacker, and he [Lewis] put me on the strong side. I had to get rid of all of the weak-side assignments I was used to," said Powell, who turned 25 this week. "I had never played defensive end in the nickel defense before. Going to the 3-4 was another step. It took me awhile, but I'm starting to get used to it."
Lewis expresses optimism, but also caution where Powell is concerned.
"He has shown the athletic ability, but every time he has taken a step forward, he has taken a step backward," Lewis said. "He does things in practice, but you've got to show some things when it's live. Craig has worked hard. His time will come. But the guy should still be a senior in college. I'm not responsible for him being here."
Added Modell: "He wasn't my personal choice [on draft day], but I went along with my football people on that decision."
When the Browns made Powell the 30th player chosen in the 1995 draft -- and that deal with the 49ers also landed them linebacker Ray Lewis in the first round of this year's draft -- they saw a 6-foot-4, 235-pounder with an irresistible combination of size and speed.
The fact that he was a true junior was offset by his production. Powell started 33 of 37 games over three years, made 205 career tackles and was first-team All-Big Ten as a junior.
"He was a three-year player out of Ohio State, and we wanted an outside linebacker. We thought he would fill our needs," said Mike Lombardi, the team's former player personnel director.
Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, huddled with Lombardi and former coach Bill Belichick before the Browns chose Powell.
"We picked him on potential," Newsome said. "Craig came out a year early, reported late to his first training camp, got hurt in his first season, and it takes awhile to catch up when all of those things are working against you.
"Before his shoulder injury [this year], he was productive on special teams. You measure success of young players in small jumps, not big jumps.
"The next step is to get him to contribute on defense, but we have to get him healthy first. Your third year is normally when you make a big jump in this league. I look at the next off-season and the '97 season as a big year for him."
Said Powell: "I don't think I'm going to drop off any more. I've got to step up."
NOTES: One of the bright spots for the Ravens in the past two weeks has been offensive guard Jeff Blackshear, who is filling in for Wally Williams, who has replaced the injured Steve Everitt at center. Blackshear handled Cincinnati defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson two weeks ago, and then drew high praise from the coaching staff against Jacksonville last week. "He has done real well," said coach Ted Marchibroda. "He has been a real nice fit for us, and we did well on the deal." The Ravens acquired Blackshear during the off-season in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks for a 1997 fourth-round pick. Marchibroda said he expected cornerback Antonio Langham to play tomorrow. Langham, who started nine previous games, missed last week because of a hamstring pull. Starting outside linebacker Williams (knee) and fullback Carwell Gardner (shoulder) did not practice yesterday. Both are listed as doubtful for tomorrow.
Next for Ravens
Opponent: San Francisco 49ers
Site: 3Com Park, San Francisco
When: Tomorrow, 4 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: 49ers by 12
Pub Date: 11/16/96