In the previous two seasons, the Ravens have seen modest improvement from outside linebacker Jamie Sharper. But if he doesn't take it to the next level in 1999, Sharper might be seeking employment elsewhere.
No one is more aware of this than Sharper, except maybe his agent. Sharper is in the final season of a three-year contract that he signed as a second-round draft pick out of Virginia in 1997.
He has seen a lot of his friends and peers come and go, including the latest victim, backup middle linebacker Tyrus McCloud, whom the team waived Sept. 5 to form the final roster. So Sharper doesn't need anyone sending him any more messages.
"Every year is pivotal in this league," Sharper said. "Look around. One day you're here, the next day you're gone. Whether you're in the first year of your contract or the second, you have to produce. It's not that hard to figure out."
Sharper is an enigma. He finished as Virginia's all-time leading tackler with 435, including 12 sacks and 41 for losses. He started all but one game as a rookie and finished fourth on the team in tackles with 79. He was tied for fourth on the team in tackles last season with 84, but the Ravens expect more.
As the weak-side linebacker, who is generally uncovered in the Ravens' defensive scheme, Sharper is expected to challenge middle linebacker Ray Lewis for the team lead in tackles every year. Lewis, out of the University of Miami, has had 142, 210 and 154 tackles, tops on the team, the past three seasons.
The two are comparable. Both have good size, Lewis at 6 feet 1 and 240 pounds, Sharper at 6-3 and 240. Both come from solid college programs. Both have good speed and solid instincts.
The difference is that Sharper played more of a strong-side role in college and rushed the quarterback more than he does with the Ravens, while Lewis is in his natural position. There is also speculation that Lewis is more of a self-motivator than Sharper.
That's part of the reason Ravens coach Brian Billick brought in Jack Del Rio, 36, as the new linebackers coach. Del Rio played linebacker 11 years in the NFL and was the Minnesota Vikings' leading tackler from 1992 through 1994.
"I'm still learning more things, more technique," Sharper said. "That's why I'm glad they brought in Jack. He's given me a lot of insight: How to get a better vision of the blocker, how to shed him and then get to the ball-carrier. It's harder than a lot of people think.
"He's always critiquing my steps, my eyes," Sharper said of Del Rio. "He's helping me with my reads and I'm getting more comfortable. As for my motivation, I have always been a self-starter. To be honest, the other guys next to me motivate me."
Sharper is playing alongside Pro Bowl talent with Lewis in the middle and Peter Boulware on the strong side. Sharper would like to get the same recognition, but he still needs to improve in some areas, especially pass coverage. It's an area all three have struggled with, but it's Sharper who comes off the field in third-down passing situations.
If a player wants Pro Bowl recognition, he has to make big plays on third down. Sharper, though, is usually on the bench.
"It's a positive being the least known, or the 'third linebacker,' " Sharper said. "It just makes me work harder. If Ray and Peter were just average players, I might not strive as hard to get better. But when I'm on the field, I try to get the most out of my repetitions because that's my chance to make big plays.
"I want to work my way onto the field on third downs. Right now, it's between me and a safety and Marvin [Lewis, defensive coordinator] likes to go with the safety. But I know I haven't played up to my potential yet. I'm getting there.
"I played all right Sunday [nine tackles, one pass knocked down against the Rams], but there is room for improvement."
Sharper feels it's just a matter of time. The Ravens may think otherwise at the end of the 1999 season.
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers
Site: PSINet Stadium
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Steelers by 2 1/2
Tickets: Sold out
Pub Date: 9/17/99