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Revving up for a test drive Ravens say overhaul doesn't preclude run to make playoffs in '97; NFL Camp preview

Now, it's OK to use the R-word -- rebuilding -- about the Ravens.

A year ago, after the move from Cleveland to Baltimore, owner Art Modell brought in first-year coach Ted Marchibroda to try to rekindle the passions of a lot of the veterans that had made the Browns a playoff team in 1994.

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It didn't work.

The Ravens finished 4-12 and had the worst-ranked defense in the NFL. So during the off-season, Modell and Ozzie Newsome, the team's vice president of player personnel, kept their January promise of releasing 30 percent of the roster.

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Since Dec. 22, when the Ravens lost, 24-21, in the season finale to the Houston Oilers at Memorial Stadium, the Ravens have cut or not re-signed 17 players from the that game's roster.

Only 22 players of the 81 who are expected to attend the full minicamp that officially begins Thursday at Western Maryland College (rookies report tonight) have three or more years NFL playing experience.

Only 18 former Cleveland Browns remain. Rebuilding is in full effect.

"That term can be used now, but it has to be used in a different context than it was years ago," said Marchibroda. "The playing level is much different than it was a year ago, there's a much broader scope combining the draft and free agency. We're excited about this team.

"Just because you rebuild doesn't mean you can compete for the playoffs," he said. "Several teams have proved that in recent years. We made changes out of necessity. Getting rid of some of the Browns players wasn't by design, it just worked out that way."

The Ravens traded left tackle Tony Jones to Denver for a second-round draft choice. They cut veteran safety Eric Turner -- freeing up $3 million in salary cap money -- and chose not to re-sign linebackers Mike Croel, Ed Sutter and Keith Goganious.

Gone is center Steve Everitt, who left his heart in Cleveland but signed a free-agent contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. Veteran defensive end Anthony Pleasant, who came into the league with the Browns in 1990, is now with the Atlanta Falcons.

"There were some guys who were mad about leaving Cleveland," said Ravens starting right tackle Orlando Brown, who should challenge for Pro Bowl honors this season. "They had homes in Cleveland, had been drafted by the Browns and didn't want to leave. Some guys didn't adjust."

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It didn't take long for Marchibroda to begin putting his mark on this team. Pleasant has been replaced by former Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael McCrary, and defensive tackle Tony Siragusa left the Indianapolis Colts to anchor the right side instead of Dan Footman. The Ravens have signed two other free agents who should start -- offensive guard Leo Goeas and safety Rondell Jones.

But the big talk in April revolved around the draft, when the Ravens selected what many experts picked to be the best group of the 30 teams.

The Ravens came away with Florida State defensive end Peter Boulware with the No. 4 overall pick, then added Virginia outside linebacker Jamie Sharper and Penn State safety Kim Herring in the second.

Both Boulware and Sharper are penciled in as starters, with Herring challenging Jones for a starting position. Now it's the problem of getting all three signed. None is expected to report today with the other rookies.

But the Ravens are hoping the infusion of new and young talent blends with the solid performances of veterans such as quarterback Vinny Testaverde, receivers Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander, offensive linemen Wally Williams and Brown and defensive backs Stevon Moore and Antonio Langham.

"I've noticed a lot of guys are focused around here. There are still enough players around to remember the past two years, including the 4-12 season a year ago," said Brown. "I think we're tired of losing."

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Marchibroda says he has noticed a new attitude, too. A year ago at this time, the Ravens were still unsettled from the move. Players were still looking for housing and enrolling their children in schools. They had limited exposure to both the offense and defense through a two-week minicamp. Few team officials even knew where to find Western Maryland College.

"We're talking about a completely different scenario," said Marchibroda. "Everything is now more settled, more relaxed. There is more of a free team spirit in the locker room."

"And honestly, I can say we have more ability than we had a year ago," he said. "We're also going to get more leadership. A year ago, we had guys who were hesitant to speak up. Now I think we have some players who have the football temperament we desire."

Among the most eagerly anticipated arrivals are the new components of the rebuilt 4-3 defense.

Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis is banking on Boulware and Sharper, along with second-year middle linebacker Ray Lewis, to overcome their inexperience with speed and hustle behind a front four that should be measurably improved, especially since defensive tackle Larry Webster has been reinstated from a one-year substance abuse suspension.

"If someone had told me before the draft that we would get Boulware, Sharper and Herring, I would have said no way," said Newsome, who directed the Ravens' draft. "I think we might have the nucleus for something special."

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Said Marvin Lewis: "I'm as comfortable as I can be with it. I have no other choice. We've added some proven people up front, and we drafted two great young players [Boulware and Sharper] to play behind them. When you add Ray to that, we've got three great young players [at linebacker]. That's the hand we've been dealt."

The linebackers will not be the only area to watch at training camp. When starting center Wally Williams went down with a torn Achilles' tendon in late April, that left the Ravens with only three healthy starters from last year's strong offensive line -- guard Jeff Blackshear and tackles Jonathan Ogden and Brown.

The Ravens are counting on the emergence of two-year backup Quentin Neujahr at center, along with fifth-round draft pick Jeff Mitchell. The Ravens are also looking to solidify their tight end position by signing Eric Green, and they would like to add a veteran linebacker and add some depth.

"We've got a lot of new faces, but now it's time to see what they can do with the pads on," said Marchibroda. "I've been impressed with our draft choices and some of the free agents, but it can be different in equipment. We've got some questions, but that's what training camp is for, to find the answers."

Pub Date: 7/13/97


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