As far as the Ravens were concerned, it was never a contest. Rookie Peter Boulware came to training camp late, made the switch to strong-side linebacker and came close to tying the rookie record for sacks.
Apparently a nationwide panel of 48 sportswriters and broadcasters agreed: Boulware was the runaway winner of Associated Press' NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Chosen on 36 ballots, Boulware easily outdistanced Miami Dolphins linebacker Derrick Rodgers and New Orleans Saints safety Sammy Knight, who received three votes apiece. Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor got two votes and Detroit Lions cornerback Bryant Westbrook one.
Boulware, the fourth pick in this year's draft, finished with 11 1/2 sacks, second in the AFC, and one behind the NFL rookie record shared by Leslie O'Neal and Simeon Rice.
"It's a privilege to be picked," Boulware said. "I am humbled by it, just because there are a lot of great players out there. For them to choose me out of all those guys, it's an honor. I'm thankful to everyone for picking me.
"I still have a long way to go, but I think I've learned a lot in the last year. I really appreciate the help I got from [middle linebacker] Ray Lewis. He was a rookie last year, and he was always telling me what to do, what to look for."
Lewis returned the compliment.
"Peter took his game to another level once he really learned what was going on," Lewis said. "Peter did a great job. He was really focused on what he was doing."
Coach Ted Marchibroda said: "Peter is much deserving of the award. Without any question, he was the top rookie in the league. Any time a player misses six weeks of training camp, has to learn a new position and then plays at his level, well, that's an indication of the tremendous talent he has."
Boulware was an All-America defensive end at Florida State and was rated the top pass rusher in last April's NFL draft. There were a number of league coaches who doubted if Boulware could make the transition to strong-side linebacker.
He had problems early in the season, especially trying to cover running backs one-on-one as well as taking on tight ends and trying to avoid crack-back blocks. But by the end of the year, most of the difficulty had faded. His forte, though, was his speed pass rush around more powerful but slower tackles.
"The coaches were really patient. I messed up a lot, but they were always there to help me," he said. "I learned something every game, and every game I got better. I felt every week I was a lot better than I was the week before."
Boulware said he is far from being at the top of his game. He still needs to recognize offenses and situations better and the team's off-season weight program should strengthen his upper body.
"I don't want to put weight on just to add weight," he said. "I don't want body fat, just more muscle mass."
With Lewis and Jamie Sharper, another rookie, at linebacker, the HTC Ravens should be set for years at the position. "I see great things for our group," Boulware said. "Potentially, we could be one of the best in the NFL."
Boulware was the 15th linebacker to earn the honor, but the first since Mike Croel in 1991. He joined such illustrious linebackers as Jack Lambert, Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Thomas who have won defensive rookie honors.
Last year's winner was Rice, a defensive end for the Arizona Cardinals.
Pub Date: 12/24/97