Many receivers on hand, but there's a catch

From mix of veterans, unknowns, team seeks threat to pair with J. Lewis

July 28, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Ravens receivers coach Milt Jackson has a lot of work to do.

He looks at his group of players -- from the unproven guys like Billy Davis, Patrick Johnson, James Roe, Justin Armour and Brandon Stokley, to the somewhat proven but aging guys like Floyd Turner, Webster Slaughter and Qadry Ismail -- and wonders where the Ravens will get the production they need to spark an offense that ranked 26th in the NFL last year.

The Ravens' receiver corps basically looks like Jermaine Lewis and the Question Marks.

Only Lewis, a fifth-round steal from the 1996 draft, has a strong track record. Coming off a Pro Bowl year as a punt-return specialist, Lewis also ranked third in the NFL last year with a 19.1-yard average per catch. His six touchdown receptions included plays that covered 64, 58, 56, 73 and 46 yards. He remains the top big-play threat in Baltimore.

As for the rest of this group, well, that's where Jackson stares at his depth chart and starts wondering. It's a group full of newcomers and unknowns. Even Lewis has a slight drawback. At 5 feet 7, he has had trouble staying healthy for a full season.

"You've got to get five guys out of this group that can help you win games," Jackson said. "Somebody has to work his way in here. There's a reason for a lot of new faces" at receiver. "That position has not been real strong."

Ravens coach Brian Billick said keeping Lewis healthy is a top priority, meaning Lewis will return fewer punts and come off the field for a few plays now and then. The Ravens are counting on others to emerge as dependable complements.

Therein lies the rub.

Instead of throwing big money at a big name -- like Green Bay's Antonio Freeman or the disgruntled Carl Pickens of Cincinnati -- the Ravens have put together a combination of young and old players, all on the cheap and all with something to prove. Let the question marks begin.

Will the speedy Johnson shake off his rookie drops, gain confidence in Billick's system and blossom? Will rookie Stokley be a major factor? Johnson is a second-round pick with tons of potential. Stokley is a fourth-rounder who displayed the most impressive hands on the team in minicamps.

"Patrick is a hard worker who really enjoys playing the game, and he's a scary guy because he's so fast," Jackson said. "He's a hard guy to line up against. We'll be in three-wide [formations] so much that he should get the chance [in the slot] to make some big plays.

"Stokley is probably as polished as any of the guys who went ahead of him [in the draft]. Some guys have naturally great hands. With his speed and quickness, he could play a lot."

Competition for the final two receiver spots should at least be interesting. Only Turner is a known commodity. His five touchdowns last year are more than the recently departed Michael Jackson managed in his last two seasons. But Billick is challenging Turner by bringing in the likes of Slaughter, Ismail and Davis.

Davis is the most intriguing. At 27, he is coming off a breakthrough year in Dallas, where he caught a career-high 39 passes and started a career-high 11 games. At 6-1, he is among the tallest receivers on the team. It's time to find out if he is a full-time player.

Ismail and Slaughter bring more uncertainty. For all of his great speed and his familiarity with Billick's system, Ismail, a seven-year veteran, has been confined to return duty in recent years. He has not caught a pass since 1996. And Slaughter's best days appear to be behind him. He has not caught more than 34 passes since 1994, has started one game since 1995 and was out of football in 1997.

Slaughter, 34, has caught 563 passes for 8,111 yards and 44 touchdowns in a 12-year career.

"Sometimes a guy may lose a step, but he gives you savvy by knowing how to do things, like how to get open. That will upgrade you," Jackson said of Slaughter. "If he is in the twilight, he could rejuvenate himself."

Newcomers to watch

Quarterback Scott Mitchell: Brian Billick helped resurrect Randall Cunningham's fading career in Minnesota. Can Billick work the same wonders with Mitchell? The Ravens' season basically rides on that question. Mitchell, run out of Detroit after falling out of favor with coach Bobby Ross, hit his peak in 1995 by throwing for 32 touchdowns and 4,338 yards. That's the quarterback Billick is trying to re-discover.

Quarterback Tony Banks: If Mitchell falters, Banks will be waiting. Like Mitchell, Banks needed a new start. Unlike Mitchell, Banks has never enjoyed much success, what with 42 career interceptions to go with 36 touchdowns over four seasons. His fumbling problems are well-documented. On the upside, Banks has experience, having started 43 of 44 possible games. Like Mitchell, he showed a strong arm in minicamp.

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