Five who must perform; RAVENS OUTLOOK


QB Scott Mitchell

The Ravens' offense in 1998 was among the league's most anemic, with an average of barely 17 points a game. How well the offense turns around depends largely on Mitchell's left arm and leadership. The Ravens would love to see a glimpse of the 1995 Mitchell, who threw for 32 touchdowns and more than 4,000 yards with Detroit. Anything remotely close to that will help immensely.

The Ravens are counting on coach Brian Billick to repeat the magic he worked in Minnesota with such fading stars as Jim McMahon, Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham. Mitchell, benched nearly a year ago by the Lions, showed rust early in training camp and preseason but has improved steadily since. If he masters and executes Billick's offense smoothly and avoids costly mistakes, the team could break .500 for the first time.

RB Priest Holmes

As a second-year player in 1998, Holmes worked his way into the starting tailback role during the season's first month and stuck around long enough to become the first 1,000-yard rusher in the team's brief history. A featured back is essential to the success of Billick's offense, and Holmes has done nothing to warrant not getting the first crack to succeed in that vital role.

It will be interesting to see if a year's experience will help Holmes become a more consistent runner. Consider that 400 of his 1,008 yards last year came in the two games against the Cincinnati Bengals. At times, his offensive line let him down, but at other times, Holmes picked the wrong hole or did not get through the hole quickly enough. He looks like a stronger, more improved back, but time will tell. Errict Rhett is waiting in the wings.

WR Patrick Johnson

Of all the Ravens' unproven wide-outs, which also include Justin Armour and Brandon Stokley, Johnson remains the most intriguing. No one on the team this side of Jermaine Lewis or Duane Starks is faster than Johnson, and the Ravens are counting on Johnson to use his speed to stretch defenses and open up passing lanes underneath. They would love to get Lewis and Johnson on the field together as often as possible to create more mismatches.

Johnson's lack of experience -- he was more of a track star than a football star at Oregon -- showed in 1998, when he struggled to stay healthy and catch the ball consistently. His preseason was similar, as he dropped a touchdown pass in the opener but came back a week later to score a touchdown and roll up 170 yards receiving. A strong season from Johnson would give the Ravens potentially an explosive offense.

LB Jamie Sharper

With middle linebacker Ray Lewis and strong-side linebacker Peter Boulware already established as two of the NFL's bright young stars, the Ravens are waiting for their third-year, weak-side linebacker to reach the potential they envisioned when they drafted him in the second round out of Virginia.

Sharper has been an enigma for most of his two seasons here. He has failed to establish himself as an every-down player. He has shown flashes of being more physical during the preseason. His quickness has never been in question, but he needs to improve his coverage skills to the point where the Ravens can feel comfortable leaving him in on obvious passing downs.

S Rod Woodson

The Ravens are strong and deep along the defensive line, with two outstanding linebackers to sharpen their front seven. They need to solidify their secondary to become one of the league's top defenses, and Woodson's transition from Hall of Fame cornerback to first-time free safety is a huge key to whether that happens. He looked hesitant in the deep middle of the field during the preseason.

Since the Ravens are so young at their other three secondary spots -- cornerbacks Starks, Chris McAlister and DeRon Jenkins have a combined four years' experience and strong safety Kim Herring is beginning the season as a starter for the first time -- Woodson's settling effect on the youngsters figures to play a huge factor in the success or failure of 1999.

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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