Moving Boulware to end weighty matter for Ravens

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The night before the Ravens played Pittsburgh, ESPN asked Peter Boulware to visit its announcers at a pre-game production meeting.

"You don't have to tell me -- you want to put your hand on the ground on every single play, don't you?" Joe Theismann said, ribbing the rookie linebacker.

"I know I can do that," Boulware replied.

"Just like Derrick Thomas," Ron Jaworski chirped. "He wants to put his hand in the dirt, and every coach wants him to play linebacker."

That sums it up, doesn't it?

Boulware is more comfortable playing out of a three-point stance at defensive end, where he had 32 sacks in just 13 career starts at Florida State.

But Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis wants him to remain at outside linebacker, where Boulware has become an immediate force in his first NFL season.

"He has the ability to be maybe the best linebacker to ever play the position," Lewis said.

Few would argue that point, but not everyone in the Ravens' organization shares Lewis' opinion about what is best for Boulware.

Some believe he might be better off returning to defensive end, where the Ravens could maximize his pass-rushing abilities.

Boulware held out nearly all of training camp, then had to learn a new position. Yet his 7 1/2 sacks rank first among all rookies and tie him for third in the AFC.

"I think he's very close to [Jonathan] Ogden," said head coach Ted Marchibroda, referring to the Ravens' top selections in their first two drafts.

"There are no ifs attached to him, either. He's a bright kid, intelligent, a hard-working kid. He can see the whole picture."

So why don't the Ravens make Boulware the same commitment they made Ogden, and return him to his natural position after his rookie season?

Because the answer isn't as simple as trading Tony Jones.

The Ravens are happy with their defensive ends, Rob Burnett and Michael McCrary, both of whom are signed through 1999.

Also, Boulware lacks the upper-body strength to be an NFL defensive end. He's listed at 6 feet 4, 255 pounds, but Lewis said he's "240-something."

That's not nearly enough.

Boulware still would be undersized for a defensive end even if he bulked up to 270, and that would make him a liability against the run.

But at least then he no longer would be wasted in pass coverage, where he occasionally looks awkward trying to cover running backs and tight ends.

Lewis is adamant that Boulware should stay where he is.

"Basically, the guy weighs 240-something pounds," the defensive coordinator said. "He wouldn't hold up as a defensive end in the NFL, which was the issue before Peter was drafted.

"We're playing with one like that now [McCrary is listed at 270], and it's rough on him. But he's a bigger-bodied guy than what Peter is. He's been doing that. He's used to it at this level."

Ozzie Newsome, the team's vice president of player personnel, said it was unlikely Boulware would switch next season, reasoning, "he and Michael McCrary are the same type of player -- both are right ends."

The Ravens could, however, sign a quality outside linebacker, then use Boulware at end along with Burnett and McCrary. Few defensive linemen play every snap over 60 minutes, much less a 16-game season.

Boulware, Burnett and McCrary already line up together in passing situations, with Burnett moving inside next to James Jones or Tony Siragusa. The Ravens produce their most effective pass rush out of that front four.

So, where does Boulware fit best?

Newsome: "I don't know. It'll be interesting to see where his strength level will go once he gets in a real good off-season [weight] program, whether he will maintain enough weight to play defensive end."

Owner Art Modell: "I agree with Marvin -- he can be a superstar linebacker. He also can play defensive end with a little more weight, more upper-body development. Our priority is linebacker. But you wouldn't rule out the other option.

Marchibroda: "I think that's a decision we're going to have to make at the end of the year. The only thing we know is that he's one of those individuals who probably can play a number of positions, and play them well."

Boulware's preference?

"We all know what he favors," Marchibroda said, smiling.

Does it matter?

"I think it does," Marchibroda said. "I'm not sure how much."

Boulware is only 22, but he's one of the Ravens' most mature players. He's not going to complain. He's not going to stoke controversy by demanding to play end.

"I just want to be in the best position for me," he said. "Right now, it's not end. It's linebacker. The more I play it, the more I like it, the better it's getting."

One Ravens official joked that the position Boulware wants to play is "pass rusher."

Of course, no such position exists.

"The problem is, they run the ball sometimes," the official said, smiling.

"Every linebacker would prefer to rush the passer," Lewis said. "Ray Lewis would prefer to rush the passer. But that doesn't mean [Boulware] can rush effectively on the tackle all the time from a three-point stance or play the run.

"He could be an effective rusher. But he couldn't play the run from a defensive end because the tight end is going to be sitting there, and they're going to kill him.

"You put Eric Green on one side, Orlando Brown on the other, now you've got 600 pounds vs. 240," Lewis said. "That's quite a mismatch. We try not to get Mike McCrary or Rob Burnett put in those situations very often.

"Our advantage is that we have a 245-pound outside linebacker. That makes a big difference when it comes for people schematically thinking about who's going to block him when he rushes."

Often, it's a tight end at a similar weight.

And when it's a running back, the opponent is in trouble.

Lewis said Boulware rushes about 50 percent of the snaps in the Ravens' regular defense, and even more in passing situations.

The question now is how much stronger he will be after his first off-season in an NFL weight room.

Ravens strength and conditioning coach Jerry Simmons said players generally gain five to seven pounds when trying to add bulk.

"He's got room to grow," Simmons said. "He's got good development in his hips and legs. He's got room to grow upper-body wise. And he's got room to grow in his legs, too. He's got some areas that can develop without a doubt."

Lewis agreed.

"He'll get stronger to prepare for the entire season," Lewis said. "This season is twice as long as the college season, and almost twice as physical.

"Every rookie player that I've been around at the linebacker position, they can't wait to get through their first year so they can train in the off-season and prepare for their second. They really have no idea what they're about to face.

"He'll gain body strength and he may gain some girth. Maybe he'll hold 250 next year, hopefully. That's a great weight, because he is so fast."

A great weight, but still a linebacker weight.

"If I bulked up 20 pounds, it'd be something we'd have to look at," Boulware said of a position change.

"To me, it all depends on how good I'm doing at linebacker. If I can get this linebacker thing down, start doing what I should be, I'll start liking it a lot."

Boulware sees the physical benefits of playing linebacker instead of end -- "It's not as brutal. Playing end you get beat up, hit every play."

But he also believes he can succeed as an undersized end.

"I wouldn't worry about it," Boulware said. "I think I'm faster, a lot faster than most ends. I'd compensate with my speed."

The bottom line is, the Ravens made the right decision selecting Boulware last April.

He could determine his future in the weight room, or the team could determine it by playing him where he is needed most.

:. Either way, the quarterback is in trouble.

Pub Date: 11/22/97

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