Optimism catching at Ravens' camp; Better receiver corps with rookies, Sharpe has Billick excited


Ravens coach Brian Billick couldn't hide his enthusiasm after watching the team's two first-round draft picks work out for the first time yesterday, but it's the total offensive system that he feels could be the key to the team making its first postseason appearance.

The Ravens got a glimpse of the future as they opened their three-day minicamp yesterday at the team's training facility in Owings Mills. Tennessee running back Jamal Lewis, the No. 5 overall pick, showed promise as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield and Florida wide receiver Travis Taylor, selected five slots later, also displayed potential.

But Billick is fully aware that two rookies alone will not catapult the Ravens into the postseason. But their presence, along with the addition of tight end Shannon Sharpe and another strong showing by quarterback Tony Banks, might make the difference.

"Conventionally speaking, that's a bit ambitious," Billick said of two rookies leading a playoff drive. "Obviously, there are exceptions when you look at Edgerrin James and the impact he had with Indianapolis or the Cleveland receiver [Kevin Johnson] who performed beyond a rookie. Actually, I'm more intrigued by the composite of Shannon Sharpe, the two young guys, a Tony Banks coming back for a second year and another year of continuity in the same offense.

"We embrace the concept of us going to the playoffs and we're not afraid to say that's our goal," said Billick. "But we're not going to drop it all on the two young guys. I would be surprised, though, if both didn't have an impact this season."

Banks started the last nine games of the 1999 season as the Ravens went 5-4, including winning four of their last five games. Banks completed 169 of 320 passes for 2,136 yards and 17 touchdowns. Expectations are high for Banks, who will be in the same offensive system for the second straight year for the first time since turning pro in 1996.

The Ravens added All-Pro Sharpe from the Denver Broncos during the off-season, and he was already becoming a favorite target of Banks' yesterday in practice.

"This is exciting," said Banks. "This is the first time I'm coming back as the starting quarterback. I didn't get much of a chance to work with the two rookies, but there won't be much of an adjustment with Shannon because he makes things look so easy.

"This is a lot different than last year," said Banks. "This time we're hitting the ground running. The defense comes in with their package and we've got ours."

A year ago at this time, Billick was running the practices like a New York cop at rush hour. But yesterday, he was more laid-back, letting his assistants do more of the coaching. He didn't need a calculator to count the dropped balls.

The days of the trash heap receivers may be over.

"Now that they have been though a cycle, I don't want them to get too comfortable," said Billick. "We've been through it one time and there is the real human tendency to say I know how it works and take a step backward.

"The athletic ability has to jump out at you," Billick said after yesterday morning's workout. "When you watch the receivers, you see a player like Travis. When you watch the running backs, Jamal is impressive. The athleticism we have across the board is a tangible difference from last year. You've got to feel good about that. The trash heap has been closed down. The dump yard was closed up last year."

Lewis and Taylor both have something to prove, but Lewis might be pushing a little harder. Two years ago, he had major knee surgery. His critics said he hasn't been able to cut or accelerate like he did before the injury.

"I think I've lost a little respect and I have to show what I can do," said Lewis, who ran with the third team behind starter Priest Holmes and Jay Graham yesterday. "I wasn't nervous. I just wanted to see how the flow is and how it works. We had up-speed practices at Tennessee, but this is a little faster than that. I just wanted to get the protections down first, then get the runs down later. The runs will take care of themselves. I feel pretty good and I think I can make an impact."

Taylor has a lot more competition at wide receiver. He ran yesterday behind starters Qadry Ismail and Patrick Johnson. The Ravens also have Jermaine Lewis, Brandon Stokley, Billy Davis and Marcus Nash at receiver.

Taylor got a lot of tutoring from Ismail and Johnson.

'They helped me out and told me the plays that I didn't know," said Taylor. "Right now, I'm just going where people tell me to go."

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