Ravens receive share of raves in NFL review; Executive panel impressed with young talent, sees chance to be competitive; RAVENS BREAKDOWN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two NFL general managers and one pro personnel director who anonymously critiqued the Ravens agree that they are a young and talented team that could win as many as eight of 16 games this season.

They didn't mention the playoffs, but said the Ravens should be competitive in the AFC Central and might finish as high as second.

"Realistically, that's not that strong of a division," said one NFC general manager. "Jacksonville, rightfully so, is the class of that conference. Pittsburgh is traditionally tough, but this is not one of their better teams. Tennessee is the real mystery team in the division. No one knows how strong they are going to be. If the Titans get hot at the right time, then they could do some things. But overall, Baltimore has a chance."

Another NFC general manager is impressed with the Ravens' young talent with players like offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, wide receiver Jermaine Lewis, linebackers Peter Boulware, Jamie Sharper and Ray Lewis and cornerbacks Duane Starks, Chris McAlister and DeRon Jenkins.

"Around the league, everyone is aware of the good, young players they have," he said. "Personnel-wise, they match up with a lot of teams. If they win early and mature, they could be exciting and interesting."

All three executives participated in a team analysis of the Ravens except special teams, and then a consensus grade was given for each unit.

Offensive line

The Ravens feel they have a solid group, but nothing spectacular.

Left tackle Ogden has been named to the Pro Bowl the past two years, and the Ravens have decided to start Everett Lindsay over James Atkins at left guard.

Lindsay, who played with coach Brian Billick in Minnesota last season, was impressive in training camp. Atkins missed three preseason games with a hamstring injury and is also making the transition from left tackle to left guard.

Center Jeff Mitchell started 10 games last season, and right guard Jeff Blackshear, a Pro Bowl candidate, has been a regular in the lineup for the past three years.

During the off-season, the Ravens signed right tackle Harry Swayne from the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Swayne doesn't have the brute power of former right tackle Orlando Brown, but he has much more savvy and technique and is twice as athletic.

The average weight of the Ravens' offensive line will be about 310 pounds.

The Ravens don't have much proven depth, but backup tackle Spencer Folau and guard/center Mike Flynn did perform well late last season when Brown, center Wally Williams and Ogden missed time with injuries.

Brown signed a free-agent contract with the Cleveland Browns, and Williams moved on to the New Orleans Saints.

"They lost some offensive linemen, which will hurt them, but they replaced them with some decent players," said one general manager. "They have established a running game in preseason, and I think that unit will be OK. One thing is certain: They got one heck of a tackle over there on the left side."

The other general manager was also impressed with Ogden as well as Blackshear.

"Their offensive line is like most in the league," he said. "You have two or three great players and the rest are fill-ins or regular guys. Ogden is great, and both Swayne and Blackshear are solid. They are not the most talented group, but they should be effective."

Grade: C.

Running backs

Before the start of training camp, the Ravens weren't sure that second-year player Priest Holmes was the answer at this position. Now, after four preseason games, they are sure he isn't. The solution is Holmes and Errict Rhett.

Holmes, who rushed for 1,008 yards last season, had a solid training camp and improved in every phase of the game. He hasn't done anything to lower the team's opinion of him, but the Ravens were also impressed with Rhett, a sixth-year veteran.

Neither will remind anyone of Gale Sayers. They don't have great speed, but both are steady and have outstanding work ethics. Holmes has more ability to go outside, and Rhett is able to get the tough yards inside the tackles.

Rhett performed well at the beginning of last season, but was removed from the starting lineup after a thigh injury in the second game. He was used sparingly after that and had personality differences with former coach Ted Marchibroda.

The Ravens also have Jay Graham, who may have more raw ability than Holmes or Rhett. Graham had a slow start in training camp, but he ran hard in the last three preseason games. He finally showed the toughness that his critics have said he lacks.

The Ravens brought in fullback Chuck Evans to serve as a lead blocker, but he is a do-it-all player who can run as well as catch. Evans has a capable backup in Tony Vinson, the former Towson State star, who bulked up about 10 to 12 pounds this season.

"Priest Holmes is not one of the top backs in that division, but that's not to say that he isn't capable of being very productive in their offense," said the pro personnel director. "He's a good, developing runner. I have to think they will find ways to get Errict Rhett more involved in the offense."

"Priest Holmes is solid, but he is not a guy who is going to carry the ball 25 to 30 times a game," said a general manager. "But he won't need to. I've always been a Rhett fan. He's tough, nasty and has a heart of gold. There aren't too many people who will outwork him.

"Their lack of speed will cut down the use of the field, but different formations and the scheme might get more production out of them than some people expect."

Grade: C+.

Quarterbacks

Nearly eight months ago, when Scott Mitchell came to Baltimore as the disgruntled quarterback of the Detroit Lions, he was overweight and out of a job. Now he is the Ravens' starting quarterback.

Mitchell, in his 10th season, has not showed any of the problems he reportedly had in Detroit. He gets along well with his coach and teammates. Surly? At times, but name at quarterback who isn't.

He has adjusted well to the offense and has progressed every week since training camp started in late July. So much, in fact, that the Ravens don't have a quarterback controversy.

Backup Tony Banks is more athletic and probably throws a better deep ball, but his mechanics aren't nearly as polished as Mitchell's. The good news is that the Ravens consider Banks a project and possibly the team's quarterback of the future.

The Ravens also have high hopes for No. 3 quarterback Stoney Case, who joined the team about a month ago.

Case doesn't have the arm strength of either Mitchell or Banks, but he is competent and Billick likes his knowledge and aggressiveness. Going into the regular season, the quarterback position is one of the biggest question marks for the Ravens.

"It's an interesting situation," said the pro personnel director. "Scott Mitchell is a guy who has shown he can perform. They've got two guys in Mitchell and Banks who are not upper-echelon guys, but they've got enough to win with."

"Billick has this reputation of being a quarterback guru, so he is going to get something out of these guys that most people can't," said one general manager. "Whether it's Banks or Mitchell, it's important that the starter has success early. Both of these guys had their confidence shattered a year ago."

Grade: C.

Receivers

The Ravens have reclamation projects at receiver, too, with Justin Armour, Billy Davis and Qadry Ismail.

During the first two weeks of training camp, the receivers were dropping as many passes as they were catching. It got so bad that rumors began circulating that the team was close to trading for Cincinnati Bengals receiver Carl Pickens.

But since the second preseason game, the receivers have become more familiar with their routes and have hung onto the ball. Billick has done a good job of separating his receivers, making sure they are not cut from the same mold. Davis, Patrick Johnson and Ismail are speed guys and Floyd Turner and Armour were more physical receivers. Webster Slaughter was put in the category with Jermaine Lewis, versatile and effective, even though Slaughter was eventually released, as was Turner.

The Ravens will have their share of big plays, and some of them might come from tight ends Aaron Pierce and Lovett Purnell. Like some of the receivers, these two were either out of football a year ago or aren't household names.

"Obviously, Jermaine is the big-name guy. He's the one who can take it the length of the field every time he touches the ball," said the pro personnel director. "This is a big year for him. He has to show that he can do it [as a receiver] consistently and he has to show some durability. The rest of it [the receiver corps] all kind of runs together."

"We've seen Lovett Purnell play, and he's an adequate player," he said. "In relative terms, they've got a pretty athletic group. There are not a whole lot of tight ends in this league."

One general manager said Johnson is the key.

"If Patrick comes along, then they'll have a strong offense," he said. "His speed, opposite Jermaine's, allows them to spread the field. That gives them another big stick. Since they don't have a great running back, they need another great player at a skill position."

Grade: C.

Linebackers

This may be one of the most talented groups in the league. Third-year middle linebacker Ray Lewis has made the Pro Bowl two straight years and has led the team in tackles ever since he became one of the team's first-round draft picks in 1996 with Ogden. Lewis had 154 tackles last season.

Strong-side linebacker Peter Boulware, in his third season, has made the transition from college defensive end to outside linebacker, but he may only be used on third-down situations because of a damaged right shoulder.

Boulware was sixth on the team in tackles last season with 83 and had 8.5 sacks. He is a pure speed rusher who can become better if he learns more moves with his hands. Boulware was also named to the AFC Pro Bowl squad last season.

This is a pivotal year for weak-side linebacker Jamie Sharper. He is the least recognized of the three, but seems to have improved under new linebackers coach Jack Del Rio. Sharper started off slowly in training camp, but has progressed in every preseason game.

Sharper, in his third season, was tied for fourth on the team in tackles with 84. But as the weak-side linebacker in defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis' scheme, he should be first or second in tackles because he is uncovered. The key for Sharper is recognizing and reacting to the offense.

"When I watch film of those guys, it's amazing how fast they go to the ball," said one NFC general manager. "All three of those guys run and make plays. They seem to play off each other with the one in the middle as the catalyst. Their only weakness seems to be pass defense and getting back into their lanes."

The pro personnel director wasn't sold on Sharper.

"Ray Lewis is as good as there is in this league," he said. "He embodies what it's all about. Peter is another guy with a ton of ability, an excellent player. But he has to stay healthy. As an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, he would be unbelieveable. Sharper is kind of an enigma. I don't see a whole lot that I'm crazy about. There isn't one thing that he does very well."

The Ravens have good depth at the position. Reserve Tyrell Peters will be making the transition from outside to inside linebacker, and Cornell Brown performed well in place of Boulware while he nursed a shoulder injury in training camp. Marvin Lewis recently said Brown could probably be a starter on another team.

Grade: B.

Defensive line

When former Ravens defensive tackle James Jones signed with the Lions during the off-season, it was expected to be a big loss. Instead, the Ravens haven't missed him at all.

Former reserve Larry Webster has replaced Jones, and even though he doesn't have Jones' athleticism, Jones didn't have Webster's bulk (6 feet 5, 288 pounds). Webster will play beside veteran Tony Siragusa, who, at Billick's urging, has slimmed down and become more agile this season.

Siragusa had 68 tackles last season. He will be joined on the front line by ends Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett. McCrary was named to the Pro Bowl last season after he finished second on the team in tackles with 102, and had 14.5 sacks, second-best in the conference.

McCrary, though, won't be in game shape early in the season because of off-season knee surgery and a two-day hiatus from camp because of stalled negotiations over a contract extension. Burnett doesn't get a lot of publicity, but he turns in a solid effort every week, though his career is on the decline. He may be a little more motivated this season because he is in the final year of his contract.

As with the linebackers, the Ravens have good depth on the defensive line. Reserve ends Keith Washington and Fernando Smith are quality players and reserve tackles Lional Dalton and Martin Chase drew high praise from Marvin Lewis in the preseason.

On goal-line defense, the Ravens could have a lot of beef up front with Dalton, Chase, Webster and Siragusa.

"A lot of teams will look at those young cornerbacks and might try to run," said one general manager. "That could be a big mistake. Hardly anyone had success running against those guys in preseason, especially on short-yard situations. The weakness though, may be in their health. Siragusa, Burnett and McCrary all have had knee problems. They have solid backups, but those reserve tackles aren't proven on game day yet.

"Burnett has to stay healthy, and I think he has been declining since the team moved from Cleveland," said the pro personnel director. "Goose is a good run-stuffer, but he is unreliable in the sense that you never know how many snaps he's going to take because of the shape he is in. But you still got to game plan against him.

"McCrary is excellent. He is undersized, he has a history of knee problems, but he plays extremely hard. James Jones was a real good role player, but it looks like they have enough with those young guys [Chase and Dalton] to pick up the slack."

Grade: B.

Secondary

One day Chris McAlister and Duane Starks could be one of best cornerback tandems in the NFL. That's in the future. For the first part of the 1999 season, they could be taking some lumps.

Starks was the No. 10 overall pick in the draft in 1998, and McAlister was taken by the Ravens in the same position in 1999. Like Starks last year, McAlister is having a tough time breaking into the starting lineup because of DeRon Jenkins.

With a new secondary coach, Jenkins has improved his play this season enough to slow McAlister's ascension. McAlister, though, will get plenty of playing time in nickel and dime coverage. In the preseason, teams attacked McAlister when he was on the corner.

Starks got the same treatment last year in a typical rookie up-and-down season. But Starks has been the team's top defensive back in camp. McAlister has similar tools, but is more physical and can manhandle a receiver in press coverage.

The transition from cornerback to safety hasn't been as smooth as expected for Rod Woodson. He is used to keying only on the receiver in front of him, but now has to check the quarterback, receiver and tight ends. In the final two preseason games, though, Woodson turned his performance up a notch. Strong safety Kim Herring showed no effects from the separated shoulder he suffered in 1998. As a matter of fact, Marvin Lewis said he is even more aggressive.

The secondary, though, is still considered the weakest unit of the defense.

"I'm still not sure about Herring," said the pro personnel director. "I'm not as confident about him as I am about those two young corners. McAlister has tremendous ability. Starks is only going to get better. You can have Jenkins. I've never seen him do anything tough on the field. Woodson can bring an element of leadership that you can't put a price tag on."

"Those corners are going to get tested in the passing game, but both are solid," said a general manager of McAlister and Starks. "Both of those guys are smart and great athletes. We had both of those guys rated high. The team may not have another cornerback problem for five to 10 years."

Grade: C.

Sun staff writer Gary Lambrecht contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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