Ravens like tight end committee

Cast of unknowns vie for starting job

April 29, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Who are those guys?

Tight end Lovett Purnell spent two years toiling in the wide shadow of New England Pro Bowl player Ben Coates. Aaron Pierce, still trying to establish himself as an NFL force after six seasons, is back after walking away from the game for a year. A. J. Ofodile is hoping to make an impact -- finally -- in his third season. Then there's Greg DeLong, the underappreciated veteran who can do several jobs admirably but is no one's idea of a star waiting to happen.

One could say the starting tight end position vacated two months ago by Eric Green, now of the New York Jets, is up for grabs.

And Ravens coach Brian Billick, who has been monitoring his committee of unknowns at the team's first minicamp, is sure the Ravens will be happier with their new look, however it turns out.

"We are going to get more production out of that position this year. I truly believe that," Billick said.

The early favorite to take the starting job is Purnell, 6 feet 3, 245 pounds, who has flashed excellent hands to go with speed that could stretch defenses over the middle. Purnell declined to talk with reporters yesterday.

"Purnell picks things up quickly. He's been around this for a while," Billick said. "Sitting behind Ben Coates, you didn't know what he could do as a starter. We brought him in here knowing he could be a starter. He's going to be good at everything without being an All-Pro at anything, just good and solid across the field."

"Lovett is going to be a great tight end in this offense," DeLong said. "He's a good athlete. He comes out of his breaks [in pass patterns] real well. He's going to catch a ton of balls."

Purnell has caught 17 passes in his career, including three for touchdowns.

Pierce and Ofodile are wild cards in the mix. Pierce, a third-round pick out of Washington in 1992, became an on-again, off-again presence in New York's offense. He typically deferred to Howard Cross in the Giants' run-oriented attack. He finally left the game in 1998, deciding to wait until he found a chance to become a starter in the prime of his career.

"With every day, you can see Aaron getting back into his stride, in terms of having been out for a year," Billick said.

Ofodile, 6-6, 260, originally signed in 1997 as a free agent out of Missouri, seemed to hit his stride during an excellent preseason last year. But the Ravens released him after training camp, re-signed him shortly thereafter, then never played him on offense. Already blessed with good hands and impressive speed, Ofodile's blocking left much to be desired.

The most productive -- albeit quietly so -- of the group could end up being DeLong, who possibly has been the busiest player in minicamp.

A five-year veteran who played an unheralded role in Minnesota's record-setting offense under Billick, DeLong will alternate between tight end, fullback and H-back with the Ravens. From one play to the next, he could shift from the backfield to the line of scrimmage, or he could be set in motion before the snap.

Billick sees DeLong and fullback Chuck Evans sharing around 75 percent of the action on first or second down.

Look for DeLong to be a fixture when the Ravens go to a two tight end set. Don't look for him to complain about not getting the ball enough. He caught a total of eight passes with the Vikings last year. Good blocking is what will keep him on the field.

"My job is to help set a tempo, show everyone else how [Billick] wants us to work -- finishing plays, catching passes and all the little extra things that he wants to create a championship team," said DeLong, 6-4, 250.

"Of course I'd like to catch more passes, but I know my primary role on this team is to block. I'll be happy if I catch 10 passes this year. I have to know three positions on offense. If my role is to get the morale up around here through hard work, I'll do that."

NOTE: Having watched the majority of his receivers have less than stellar minicamps, Billick said he is "reasonably happy" with the group. Jermaine Lewis and Floyd Turner have caught the ball the most consistently. Between his route-running mistakes and his shaky hands, second-year man Patrick Johnson has struggled noticeably. Said Billick: "Patrick is my Tasmanian Devil. Right now, he's spinning out of control. He has to understand that uncontrolled speed is useless."

Pub Date: 4/29/99

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