Mike Caldwell has been biding his time while paying his dues, and as his fourth NFL season approaches, he looks forward to being known as more than just a promising outside linebacker.
For the first time in his career, Caldwell is a starter. Since day one of training camp, he has been the Ravens' top weak-side linebacker. Three seasons of solid special teams and situational pass-coverage duty have prepared him for this milestone.
And the questions persist. Who is this guy, and how good is he?
During his first three seasons in Cleveland, Caldwell, 24, was a role player who was overshadowed by veterans such as Pepper Johnson, Clay Matthews and Carl Banks. During training camp, rookie Ray Lewis has grabbed more attention than any other linebacker.
"I've been brought along slowly. I got to see how the older guys like Clay and Pepper did it, and I want to use my ability to better what they've taught me," Caldwell said.
"I took my role and adjusted to it. This is kind of new. Now, I'm still one of the younger guys, but I feel like one of the older guys."
With linebackers like Lewis, fellow rookie Dexter Daniels and second-year outside linebacker Craig Powell around him, Caldwell has gained lots of seniority this year.
He also has done some things to sharpen his game, beginning with adding about 10 pounds of muscle to his frame, making him a more robust 6 feet 2, 240 pounds. In defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis' 4-3 base alignment, an attacking, gambling style of defense, Caldwell's athleticism will be a key.
In Lewis' eyes, Caldwell's weight gain has not cost him any of the quickness he displayed as one of Cleveland's top special teams tacklers after the Browns drafted him in the third round out of Middle Tennessee State in 1993. Lewis needs linebackers who can do it all -- stuff the run, rush the passer, cover running backs in pass coverage, run people down in the open field.
"Mike has shown that he can do it all," said Lewis, who first evaluated Caldwell when he was coaching linebackers in Pittsburgh, before the Ravens hired him six months ago. "Our special teams coach in Pittsburgh always had a lot of respect for Mike. I never listened to anybody who told me what he couldn't do. During minicamp, he did everything perfectly and worked hard. Then, he came back here [to training camp], put the pads on and physically did it again."
Caldwell showed a few flashes in the Ravens' 17-9 preseason victory over Philadelphia on Saturday. He hustled into the flat to bat away a pass by quarterback Rodney Peete in the early going, then showed nice lateral movement while making a tackle to assist in a goal-line stand later.
Count Caldwell as a fan of Lewis' defense. He is even trying to shed a few pounds to give him that extra edge he'll need to run ball carriers down as the season drags on.
"You have more freedom in this defense, and that fits my style," Caldwell said. "I'm not the type of guy who is going to hold up a 300-pounder and stick him back in the hole. I can use my ability to get around him and make a play."
Not that Caldwell has failed to make his share of plays. During his first two years with the Browns, Caldwell made his mark on special teams, finishing at least third among tacklers on the squad in that category in both seasons. Last year, he started six games and made a career-high 100 tackles, knocked down six passes and intercepted two.
During the past off-season, while linebackers like Gerald Dixon, Banks and Johnson were leaving, Caldwell was concentrating on his game and his other studies. He fulfilled a promise to his mother by earning a degree in business administration.
Now the way has been cleared for Caldwell. He's in a new system with a new coach and renewed hope for a chance to prove how good he is.
"I accepted all of the nickel and dime pass-coverage responsibility in those first two years, but I always thought I had the ability to be a starter. I've always had confidence in myself," he said. "I just wanted someone to give me the opportunity."
Said Lewis: "I keep telling him he can be as good as he wants to be. He's a starter in the NFL now. But he can be a great starter."
Ravens roll call
College: Southern California
How acquired: 1996 free agent
Highlights: A free safety who made the switch to cornerback as a senior in 1995 USC spring drills. Served as backup at cornerback for 1995 season and played on special teams, making nine tackles, and appearing in all 12 games. As a junior in 1994, he appeared in 12 games, made 30 tackles, one for a loss, and had three pass deflections, earning starting free-safety position at midseason.
Personal: Prepped at Long Beach (Calif.) Jordan High, where he played football and track. Sociology major at USC. His uncle, Lorenzo Gray, played for the Chicago White Sox.
Ravens roll call
Pos.: Wide receiver
How acquired: 1996 free agent
Highlights: Finished college career with 106 receptions for 1,568 yards and 11 touchdowns. Returned from a torn anterior cruciate ligament to lead the Crimson Tide in receiving his final two years. As a fifth-year senior in 1995, he led the Tide in receptions (43), finished second in yardage (557), caught three touchdown passes and had a long gain of 40 yards.
Personal: Closed his prep career at St. John's (S.C.) High School with 34 TD catches, third-most in state history. Majored in sports fitness management at Alabama. Nephew of former NFL receiver Charlie Brown.
Pub Date: 8/06/96