On a personnel level, Ravens rating high

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's a football bromide that offense sells tickets and defense wins championships.

It also helps explain why the Ravens, despite an unproven offense, have a good shot at making the playoffs for the first time this season.

Their defense ranked second in the league last season and has nine starters returning, with tackle Sam Adams replacing suspended Larry Webster and cornerback Duane Starks replacing DeRon Jenkins, who left in free agency.

The Sun recently asked five NFL personnel men to anonymously rate the Ravens position-by-position so they would be free to give candid opinions, and they all raved about the defense.

When one was asked if he wanted to start with the quarterbacks, he responded, "Why don't we start with the defense?"

With the Ravens this year, it all starts with the defense.

With apologies to defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, who is likely to ride this defense to an NFL head coaching job, one of the personnel men said: "You and I could coach that defense. It ought to be good with all those draft picks. They've got a ton of talent over there. Phil Savage [the director of college scouting] keeps doing a great job. How many No. 1s do they have?"

The answer is six.

They drafted Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Chris McAlister and Duane Starks on the first round, and signed two free agents, Adams and Rod Woodson, who were drafted by their original teams with top 10 picks in the draft.

In the end, though, the personnel men agreed that the offense - particularly quarterback Tony Banks - has to be effective if the Ravens are to make the playoffs.

"It's up to the quarterback," one personnel man said. "They've probably got 20 or 21 people in place. If the quarterback makes it 22, they'll make the playoffs. If the position is a problem, it'll be difficult to make the playoffs."

"I'd be shocked if they don't make the playoffs with their defense unless the quarterback completely lays an egg," another personnel man said.

"I'm a big believer that if you can play defense, you're always in the hunt for a playoff spot," one of the scouts said.

Another personnel man said: "They knew what their problems were [offense], and they were addressed [by signing tight ends Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates and drafting running back Jamal Lewis and receiver Travis Taylor]. We'll see if their solutions were the right ones. You still don't feel all the aces are on their side offensively."

How Jamal Lewis, who missed most of camp with a dislocated elbow, plays was cited as a key by another club official.

"A lot of it comes down to Jamal Lewis. More than anybody else, he can tip the balance from being a .500 team to a definite playoff contender," he said.

The scouts also mentioned that being in the AFC Central - the only six-team division in the NFL - could be an advantage.

After going 6-4 in the division last season, they figure to sweep the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals again and have a good shot at sweeping Pittsburgh because of the Steelers' unsettled quarterback situation. If they then split with either the Titans and Jaguars or both to go 7-3 or 8-2 in the division, they'd only need a modest 3-3 or 2-4 record in their other six games to go 10-6 and probably capture a playoff berth.

"The Browns may not win a game this year. Cincinnati is Cincinnati. Pittsburgh is not very good. There's six wins. If they get one from Jacksonville, I think they're a playoff team," said one personnel man.

Here's a position-by-position breakdown on the Ravens:

Quarterbacks

Banks heads into the season as the starter, which is a familiar role for him. In four years in the league (the first three in St. Louis), he's played in 56 games and started 53.

Despite all that experience, he still has to prove himself, and he's fumbled 57 times. The Ravens gave him a $2 million signing bonus in a backloaded four-year deal, so they don't have a long-term commitment to him if he falters.

Trent Dilfer is waiting in the wings if Banks falters. Rookie Chris Redman has a lot of potential, but this is a learning year for him. He doesn't figure to play unless Banks and Dilfer are injured.

"If he [Banks] plays the way everybody hopes, there's no doubt they're a playoff contender," said one personnel man. "Consistency is a problem for him. He's a typical young quarterback. They have enough talent that as long as he can keep the train on the track, they ought to be OK."

"He has a big-time arm, but he has to make plays consistently," another said. "He can go 6-for-6 one quarter and 0-for-6 the next."

Opinion was mixed on Dilfer. One personnel man said: "I'm not crazy about their backup situation. Dilfer has had a lot of opportunities to prove he's a good quarterback. I don't think he's a capable starter."

But another personnel man said: "Dilfer's a quality backup should you get in trouble. That little security blanket is going to be welcome."

Running backs

Priest Holmes will open the season as the starter, but rookie Jamal Lewis will be pushing him if he can stay healthy. Lewis was injured in his last two years in college and dislocated his elbow in his first carry in a scrimmage with the Washington Redskins. He has to prove he can stay healthy.

Sam Gash was signed as the fullback to replace injured Chuck Evans, although Obafemi Ayanbadejo will open the season as the starter.

Holmes had a 1,000-yard season two years ago, but the scouts don't rate him as a franchise-type back.

"Whether he's the guy who can lead them to the playoffs, I'm not sure that's the case. Obviously, they don't think so [because they drafted Lewis]," one personnel man said.

Another said: "He's a solid guy, but I'm not sure he has a chance to be a superstar player like Jamal. He [Holmes] plays well in spurts.

"They need help at the running back position. Priest Holmes is an adequate running back, but I don't think he's a full-time starting guy."

Lewis is lauded for his potential.

"They've got a lot riding on Lewis, and he has to come through for them," a personnel man said.

Gash got rave reviews from all the scouts.

"I love Sam Gash. He's one of the best fullbacks in the league even though there's a lot of mileage on his body," one personnel man said.

Another said: "He's truly a tough guy. He's a lead-type fullback who'll smack you."

Receivers and tight ends

Taylor's holdout and Patrick Johnson's broken collarbone have left wide receiver unsettled. Qadry Ismail will be one starter and has to prove he can be as effective as he was last season. Taylor has potential and is quickly making up for lost time after his holdout. Johnson has to prove he can stay healthy and be more consistent. Jermaine Lewis filled in as a starter because of Taylor's holdout, but has yet to recapture his form of two years ago.

Shannon Sharpe gives the Ravens a dimension they haven't had before, a pass-catching tight end who's a weapon. Ben Coates has to show age hasn't caught up with him.

"I like this Taylor kid," one personnel man said. "I think he's going to be a good player. Qadry's coming off his best season, but he's got to be more consistent. He's got outstanding speed but inconsistent hands. I question whether Jermaine Lewis is an every-down receiver. He's an outstanding No. 3 receiver."

"The wide receivers probably have as much speed as any group in the league," another scout said. "They say in our league that speed kills. You have to be careful how you match up or they'll run by you. Ismail is a solid guy who had a productive year. He's not necessarily a great size guy. Patrick's been dinged. You watch him and he'll have Pro Bowl-type game and you turn on the film the next week and he's not on the field.

"Coming out, I thought Travis was among the two or three most talented guys out there. He's not quite as mature and some of his mechanics aren't the best because he hasn't done it as much as the other guys, but he's a very skilled kid. Jermaine Lewis has scary speed, but he's not very big."

Sharpe gets good reviews as a player who's going to help the Ravens, although there are some injury concerns about him.

"For their system as a pass-catching tight end, he'll be fine. He needs to stay healthy. Although he's in tremendous physical shape, there's a little bit of mileage on his body," one personnel man said.

Another said: "He's the proverbial old pro. He's been productive the last 10 years, and he'll give the young quarterback and the young receiving corps the leadership they probably need. It's easy for those guys to follow someone who's wearing a [Super Bowl] ring. I wouldn't worry about his age [32], but I've always been a little bit concerned about his ankles. But just about the time you get real concerned about his ankles, he runs by you for another touchdown."

"Sharpe will help. He'll be a big contributor and probably help the quarterback, give him a safety-valve guy," a scout said.

There are a lot of questions, though, about whether Coates has much left.

"Coates is a little different. I'm not so sure that time hasn't weighed on Coates a little more even though he hasn't played as long [as Sharpe]. He has hands and size, but I'm not sure he has the speed he once had. But he'll complement Sharpe very well," a personnel man said.

"Coates couldn't run last year. He was always in a crowd," another said.

Offensive line

Except for Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden, there are a lot of questions about the Ravens' line.

Guards Edwin Mulitalo and Mike Flynn are young and unproven, and center Jeff Mitchell needs to step up a level. Harry Swayne may be showing his age at right tackle, although Spencer Folau is a proven backup.

"Ogden's arguably the best left tackle in the league. He just dominates. The guards are average, but a lot of teams win with average guards. They've got to upgrade their center position. Swayne is a middle-of-the-pack guy, but they don't play a smash-mouth system and he can be effective as a pass blocker," one personnel man said

Another was more upbeat about the linemen, saying offensive line coach Jim Colletto gets a lot out of his talent.

"They have a chance to be a good group," he said. "Except for Ogden, they may not get the publicity they deserve."

Defensive linemen

The two ends, Michael Mc- Crary and Rob Burnett, were lauded by all the scouts, although there are some questions about the two tackles, Adams and Tony Siragusa.

"McCrary may be the best effort player in the league," said a personnel man. "He's got a great motor. He'll get knocked on his fanny, get up, chase the quarterback, get a sack and cause a fumble. He's the kind of guy you'd love to have on your team. Everybody else is inspired watching him play. Burnett is underrated. He's a better player than he is given credit for being."

Siragusa, though, was criticized for his holdout and for being a one-dimensional player and Adams for not being motivated enough.

"He [Siragusa] had no right holding out. Who is he kidding? He's a first- and second-down player with an injury history who brings nothing to the pass rush. Yes, he does play first and second down well if the other team is running. But he was on the field for only 45 percent of the plays [last year]," a scout said.

But another said: "Getting Siragusa back was a big deal for them. As goofy as he is, he's a good football player and he brings some toughness and personality to the defense."

Of Adams, one said: "This is a good group of people for him to be around. The people around him may elevate his level of play. He has tremendous talent. When he plays hard, he can dominate."

The scouts, though, don't think he plays hard all the time.

"Sam Adams can help them. He's a hot and cold guy. He has a history of being a lazy underachiever," one personnel man said.

He predicted Adams might be more effective for the Ravens this year than next.

"Sometimes a guy like that will want to come in his first year and prove everybody wrong," he said.

Linebackers

"It may be the best group in the league," a scout said of their linebacking trio of Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper.

Lewis is in a class of his own, Boulware can be if he stays healthy and Sharper is emerging.

"Lewis is the best middle linebacker in all of football, bar none," one personnel man said. "He's one of the most productive players every year, every game. When Boulware is healthy, he's a guy you have to account for. He does dynamic things. Sharper is an adequate player, especially with the people around him and the scheme they're using."

"Ray Lewis looked to me like he was a guy on a mission. He played the preseason game I saw like it was a playoff game with great intensity and effort. He could be the MVP in the league on defense," another said.

A scout said: "Lewis is one of the best defensive players in football. Boulware's a little bit out of position when he gets in coverage stuff. He's a great pass rusher. Sharpe is still a soft-edge guy."

Defensive backs

The Ravens may have the best young cornerback duo in the league in Chris McAlister and Duane Starks, who were drafted with the 10th picks in the 1999 and 1998 drafts. The problem may be keeping them, because both signed only four-year contracts, so Starks becomes a free agent at the end of next year and McAlister at the end of 2002.

Rod Woodson has made a smooth transition from cornerback to safety and is confounding the experts who thought he was near the end five years ago when he suffered a severe knee injury. There are questions, though, about the other safety, Kim Herring, who has yet to live up to his billing as a second-round pick.

"McAlister is better than Starks," one personnel man said. "He's a big guy with speed. Starks is a little bit smaller, although he's a good cover corner. It's hard to believe Woodson does it every year after we all try to write him off. Woodson's a special guy because of the intangibles he brings to a team, the leadership and the professionalism the younger players can see. I'm not so sure about Herring yet. He's got to be more consistent. This is a big year ... because he's a free agent at the end of the year."

"I was very impressed with those corners," a scout said. "They've stepped it up this year. And free safety is the perfect spot for Rod at this stage of his career. The player who jumped out at me, although he may not be ready to play is [Anthony] Poindexter. He's a big-time talent. He doesn't look like he's all the way back [from a knee injury], but he's close."

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