Ravens set to get acquainted

New coach, players begin effort `to find our identity as a team'

April 23, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

The roster changes are nearly complete, the first draft of his tenure is behind him, and Ravens coach Brian Billick has asked himself more than enough questions about his new team.

Starting with the team's first minicamp, which begins this morning at its Owings Mills facility, Billick's search for answers will accelerate.

Billick expects a full roster on hand for three days of meetings and light practices this weekend. After Sunday, the team's four draft picks and its rookie free agents will depart, leaving the veterans behind for four more days.

Billick, who will conduct another weeklong minicamp under similar conditions beginning June 7, wants to begin installing his offensive system immediately.

He also wants a defense already considered one of the NFL's up-and-coming units -- it boasted three Pro Bowl players last season and will look to youngsters like second-year tackle Lional Dalton and rookie cornerback Chris McAlister in 1999 -- to begin finding ways to control games more consistently. And he wants the feeling-out process between players and new coaching staff to take shape quickly.

"This minicamp is about learning how to work together," Billick said. "The main priority is for [the players] to get a sense of how we're going to do our jobs, the way we're going to conduct ourselves in meetings, the tempo of our practices, the way we're going to work.

"It's important for players to start forming relationships, to get a feel for their position coaches. At some point, sure, we're going to be learning the system and new terminology. But now is when we begin to find our identity as a team."

The Ravens might be tough to recognize at first. Another off-season personnel shake-up after another lousy season has left the team with its share of new faces.

As many as seven new starters likely will emerge on offense. One thing is certain: the Ravens will hand the ball to their third quarterback in three years, Scott Mitchell. They also will look to new insurance at that position from just-acquired veteran Tony Banks.

Billick has been working with both quarterbacks in the classroom and on the field. Forget about the questions surrounding Mitchell and Banks for a second. The question is, to whom will Mitchell be handing off and throwing?

Will it still be running back Priest Holmes, fresh off a 1,000-yard season? Ozzie Newsome, the vice president of player personnel, called Holmes the fifth-best running back in the AFC Central. The Ravens then failed to draft a running back, and are still waiting for third-year tailback Jay Graham to shake off the injuries and unfulfilled potential. A veteran like Errict Rhett could be re-signed soon.

As for the receivers, only Jermaine Lewis and Floyd Turner bring experience. Can second-year man Patrick Johnson or three-year veteran James Roe develop into significant contributors? Fourth-round pick Brandon Stokley could end up as the No. 3 receiver.

At tight end, the Ravens lost Eric Green and replaced him with a committee of unknowns. Aaron Pierce and Lovett Purnell figure to battle for the starting job. Greg DeLong steps in at H-back.

Billick feels most comfortable with his offensive line, led by tackles Jonathan Ogden and Harry Swayne -- who replaced Orlando Brown -- and right guard Jeff Blackshear. James Atkins moves in at left guard in place of the departed Wally Williams, and Everett Lindsay, acquired last weekend, could take the center job from third-year man Jeff Mitchell, who played well for half of 1998.

"The thing I'm most optimistic about right now, offensively speaking, is our line. We watched Wally and Orlando walk out the door and all the panic that ensued-- not here -- but look at the line now," Billick said.

"Swayne at right tackle -- we're better. Atkins will play better at left guard than what was played last year, and Lindsay is truly the wild card. We're better at the top six [positions] than we were last year. There is no sense of, `Oh my God, we've got to play that guy.' "

Billick also pointed to the signing of fullback Charles Evans as an upgrade over Roosevelt Potts, a free-agent bust in 1998.

"Given the circumstances of what was available [in free agency and the draft] and what this thing looked like two months ago, I like the way things have turned out," Billick said.

"Clearly, the defense has to step up and take some responsibility for that 6-10 record [in 1998]. It's time to take that potential and be one of the top defenses. The talent is there," he said.

"I know what the offense [ranked 26th last year] is schematically. What I don't know is how it's going to look in the fall."

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