The Ravens wrapped up their short time in minicamp yesterday with big-time goals. They even revealed some super expectations.
Granted, the regular season remains four months away, but the Ravens still showed their most confidence since arriving here four years ago -- and voiced it, too.
"With the exception of a few positions, we have as much talent totally on this team as those two teams that we won the Super Bowl with," said new Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe, referring to his days on the 1997 and 1998 champion Denver Broncos teams. "I can honestly say that.
"But talent doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to win any games. You have to be able to put it together on a football field."
This weekend's five practice sessions at their Owings Mills training complex represented the first step toward that. The Ravens improved themselves on paper during the off-season through free agency and the draft, and left with a strong first impression of that product in action.
The NFL's second-ranked defense last season returns basically intact and displayed the potential of becoming more athletic with the addition of free-agent tackle Sam Adams. The offense is projected to have more weapons after watching Sharpe and the immediate influx of two top-10 draft picks, running back Jamal Lewis and receiver Travis Taylor.
"There's a lot of energy right now," coach Brian Billick said. "The thing I like is that the difference in talent between last year and this year is tangible."
Plus, most players had only to refine certain strategies rather than learn an entirely new playbook, because it's their second year under Billick. And they have enhanced their focus from last year's preseason workouts, when dropped passes became habit-forming.
The optimistic vibe didn't surprise Billick, who said his team earned it as a result of last season's 5-2 finish.
"I know there's a lot of anticipation by the fans and you all [media]. And it should be, but that's because we created it," Billick said. "You didn't manufacture it, we did. We set the bar, so there's no going back."
Minicamp, however, provided a glimpse of their biggest possible pitfall.
The Ravens gave All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis an excused absence and are banking it's only a temporary void. The NFL's leading tackler is involved in preparations for his defense against two murder charges stemming from the deaths of two men outside an Atlanta nightclub after the Super Bowl.
They replaced Lewis with Brad Jackson, a second-year special teams performer who had never played middle linebacker. Although Jackson held his own, he cannot be compared to Lewis.
"[Jackson] looks natural," Billick said. "Now, he's still thinking a little bit, but he reacts. He sees an opportunity to expand on what he can do."
The Ravens have time to grow more as a team as well.
They have their first of two passing camps in two weeks and return for a veterans camp from June 12 to 15. From now until the start of training camp July 23, Billick and his staff will devise a schedule that accounts for every minute at Western Maryland.
Billick pointed to the importance of optimizing time, especially with the Ravens' self-described "ambitious" first-half schedule. They start with five of their first seven games on the road, including four matchups with playoff teams.
"If we can go out there and win some of those games, you're going to get some guys with a lot more confidence and saying, 'Why not?'" Sharpe said. "It happened in St. Louis. So if they can do it, anything is possible."