The arrival of the Ravens veterans Thursday night changed the training-camp routine for the rookie free agents. For example, until Friday morning's practice at Western Maryland College, the free-agent receivers had just run routes and scrimmaged against one another.
The arrival of veterans Derrick Alexander and Michael Jackson reduced the number of plays and practice runs for the seven rookie free-agent receivers, including James Epps, a player from East Texas State. Epps and his counterparts are trying to hang on while the Ravens trim their roster to 53 players over the next month.
Alexander and Jackson, one of only four NFL pairs to combine for more than 1,000 receiving yards last season, will be the starters, and Jermaine Lewis, a second-year player from Maryland who performed mostly on special teams last season, is expected to challenge for a spot.
That leaves Epps, 23, who is 6 feet and 185 pounds, competing with a handful of others for the few remaining positions.
"I think the minicamps have helped those young guys," Ravens receivers coach Richard Mann said. "The problem now is they won't get as many reps."
The Ravens usually used a three-wide receiver set last season and will continue using it this year, Mann said. That takes care of Alexander, Jackson and probably Lewis, who arrived at camp fitter than last season.
Mann said it is too early to say how many receivers the Ravens will keep, but that most teams employing the three-receiver set generally hang on to five or six.
"We'll keep as many as we can," Mann said. "Right now, it's hard to tell. After we go to Lehigh [for a scrimmage against the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday], we'll be able to tell."
Epps has a legitimate shot to make the roster. Lanky and quick, he was East Texas State's first 1,000-yard receiver. He caught 57 passes for 1,058 yards and 11 touchdowns last season and completed his two-year career -- he transferred from Ranger Junior College in Texas -- with 1,632 yards and 15 touchdowns.
"I think I've got a pretty good chance if I keep learning the offense," Epps said. "Of course, we got good guys in front of me. Michael Jackson, Alexander. They've been here. They know the system."
Getting to know the system and quickly learning the Ravens' ways makes an impression, but it also helps to show talent. Last week, Epps showcased his speed -- he can run the 40-yard dash in about 4.4 seconds.
The Ravens coaching staff has been impressed with that speed and with Epps' athletic ability. Before camp, Mann had only seen Epps on film. One look piqued the coach's curiosity.
"The things I saw [on film] were quickness, pretty good size," Mann said. "I saw him make some plays and he competed. The one thing is, he makes plays every practice. That's key."
Said Epps: "It's fast, quick stuff. You really got to know how to cut your routes off. I've still got to fine-tune my routes."
In addition to fine-tuning routes and working on receiving, Epps has participated on special teams during camp. If he should make the team, he will be called upon for special teams work, like all of the other receivers.
"Everybody works special teams," Mann said. "He's done some of that. He has good hands."
Epps isn't short of athleticism. He was a four-sport star in high school -- football, basketball, baseball and track -- and was drafted out of high school by the Atlanta Braves. He said the money wasn't there, so he decided to attend college and play football.
There was one problem: He missed the April 1 deadline for signing a national letter of intent with a Division I program. So he played football for two years at Ranger, where he earned Junior College All-America honors, before enrolling at East Texas State.
But his athletic experience, he said, does not quell the nerves he feels in the Ravens' camp, competing against the likes of Alexander and Jackson.
"I'm nervous," he said. "Every day I come out here, I'm nervous, but I'm fitting in pretty good."
Pub Date: 7/20/97