Criticism bounces off this Raven


As in every off-season in his career, Ravens fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo has some critical questions to answer.

But this year, the list is a lot shorter.

He has conquered the stigma of being undrafted as a rookie and survived being cut five times. He has leapt in two years from being a fringe pro player to a versatile offensive threat.

Now, despite being penciled in as the starting fullback, Ayanbadejo still hears the doubts.

Is he powerful enough to be a lead blocker? Is he durable enough to last a full season?

"It's almost like every year I come into another season being an undrafted rookie free agent," Ayanbadejo said. "Being cut as many times as I have, every year I got to prove something. Even if I don't, I'm so used to feeling that way."

Ayanbadejo enters his fourth season building off a promising year in which an injury provided an opportunity and then another took it away. In training camp, starting fullback Chuck Evans was injured, providing Ayanbadejo with his first prime playing time. He quickly established himself as a dependable receiver and playmaker.

The Ravens' second-leading receiver seven weeks into the season, Ayanbadejo hurt his right big toe at Washington when a teammate jammed his toe into the turf during a field-goal attempt. After missing three games, he returned only to injure the toe in a different area.

He was placed on injured reserve on Nov. 28 and needed surgery to repair two torn tendons and a ruptured joint.

Still a few months away from full recovery, Ayanbadejo was admittedly tentative during minicamp two weeks ago, yet showed little sign of favoring the foot in this week's passing camp.

"I'm almost not even noticing it anymore," he said.

That injury as a first-year starter led to questions about his endurance.

"Femi's challenge is to continue to progress and handle the physical aspects of being the lead back," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "By that, I mean, can he hold up? The injury thing has been the toughest thing for him."

Said Ayanbadejo: "[The injury] could happen to anyone. I don't think it has anything to do with my durability. They always have to find something to question you on."

The other frequent knock is Ayanbadejo's blocking. At 6 feet 2, 235 pounds, he isn't the textbook drive blocker like Sam Gash, who replaced Ayanbadejo after the season-ending injury.

"He sometimes gets overmatched because he's not as stout as Sam," offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. Gash weighs about the same as Ayanbadejo, but is two inches shorter.

"But [Ayanbadejo] is also capable of doing that. I think that's where he's got to make some strides this preseason. He's got to be able to show us that. I don't like being that predictable. He's got to make that crossover so we can be able to do some of those inside power plays with him."

There's no doubt about Ayanbadejo's potential. Even if the Ravens are successful in re-signing Gash, Billick and Cavanaugh envision a rotation at fullback where they can take advantage of their particular strengths.

With Ayanbadejo, the Ravens can motion him out of the backfield and use his athleticism to spread defenses. They want to capitalize on his ability to run sound routes and break open plays after the catch.

By then, maybe Ayanbadejo's play can stir up another question.

"I feel like when you put another player out there who is a threat, you have to account for that person," Ayanbadejo said. "If they're worried about you, that's taking attention away from someone else. When you have five skill guys at once that can do everything well, it's like, 'Who do you want to stop?' "

NOTES: James Harris, the Ravens pro personnel director, interviewed with the Chicago Bears' corporate search firm Wednesday for the prospective general manager opening. ... The team signed ex-Maryland kicker Brian Kopka as a second place-kicker. The Ravens coaching staff will hold a clinic for high school coaches tomorrow at PSINet Stadium. The six-hour session begins at 7 a.m. and registration is $20. All proceeds benefit the Living Classrooms Foundation.

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