J. Lewis isn't alone, he's just only option

August 21, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

The day the Ravens drafted Jermaine Lewis, former coach Ted Marchibroda said, "He could possibly be our fifth receiver, but we got him for his return skills."

Fifth receiver? Lewis is now the Ravens' top receiver -- partly because he turned out far better than everyone expected, and partly because the Ravens don't have anyone else.

Not many NFL teams feature a go-to guy at 5 feet 7 and 172 pounds. The Ravens' current state almost makes one long for Michael Jackson, a taller, talented option, if something of a head case.

"When he was here, I was always trying to get up to his level, become better than him," Lewis said yesterday. "I had a standard to set: `I'm going to get that. This is the position I want to be in.' "

And now?

"Now, I might be where he was," Lewis said, smiling. "It's something I'm willing to accept. Everyone doesn't get this opportunity. I'm trying to accept it, and get better at it."

Lewis, 24, shouldn't need to carry such a burden. And new coach Brian Billick vows to use him judiciously, fearing injury to his most dangerous offensive player and Pro Bowl return man.

The question is whether any of the Bad Hands People will emerge as a legitimate threat opposite Lewis, making it that much easier for the coach to preserve him for third downs and special teams.

The competition resumes in the Ravens' second preseason game tonight in Atlanta. Lewis, too, has struggled to adjust to Billick's system, but he's trying to absorb three positions, receivers coach Milt Jackson said.

Really, there's no need to fret over a player who averaged 19.1 yards a catch last season -- fourth in the NFL behind Shawn Jefferson (22.7), Eric Moulds (20.4) and James Jett (19.6), and ahead of Billick's former wunderkind, Randy Moss (19.0).

"All my career, I've always been a main threat," said Lewis, a fifth-round pick out of Maryland in '96. "I think I can handle it here."

If he can't, it won't be lack for ability.

"The base size for wide-outs in this league is 5-10 to 6-2. Guys that are shorter than that are usually special. Guys that are taller than that are usually special," said Milt Jackson, a 20-year NFL veteran.

"Randy Moss is taller, but he's a special guy. Jermaine, most guys would look at him and say, `That guy can't play in the NFL.' But he is. And he's a very good player. He's one of those special guys."

The more serious concern is that Lewis will be the Ravens' only potential game-breaker on offense, and that opposing defenses will key on him, beat on him, shut him down.

In an ideal world, Billick said Lewis' role would combine that of Cris Carter, the Minnesota Vikings' leading receiver last season, and David Palmer, their 5-8 return, 169-pound specialist and third-down weapon.

"David Palmer is a good analogy," said Billick, the Vikings' former offensive coordinator. "As gifted an athlete as he is, we knew we couldn't get him through the season if we exposed him to too many snaps, between his punt returns and offensive work.

"He was an integral part of what we did, a huge part of our third-down package. Jermaine will have more of a first- and second-down presence. But because of his dynamics on special teams, because of what he can give to our third-down package, we have to be careful about using him."

Marchibroda faced similar concerns, but he had other receiving options, particularly in 1996 and '97, when the offense featured Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander.

Billick has been critical of his receiving corps almost from the start of camp.

Rookie Brandon Stokley and second-year man Patrick Johnson figure to make the team, as does Billy Davis, a special teams ace. Billick is giving 6-4 Justin Armour every opportunity -- no other Ravens receiver with NFL experience is taller than 6-1 -- and Webster Slaughter is coming off a terrific week of practice.

However it sorts out, Lewis will be the best of the bunch, and he caught 41 passes last season. Carter caught 78 for Minnesota, Moss 69, Andrew Glover 35 and Jake Reed 34.

"If you can isolate your passing game to, `This is my No. 1 receiver, at all costs,' you don't have much of a passing game," Billick said. "You're too isolated. There's too many things defenses can do.

"Is [Lewis] your best receiver? Sure. Is he the guy in the crunch you need to go to? Sure. But if you're saying, `This guy is a guaranteed, bona fide 90 catches,' and everyone else is scrambling around, that doesn't bode well for you across the board."

Fair enough, but Lewis can draw inspiration from new teammate Eric Metcalf, who is competing to be the Ravens' third-down back.

In his prime, the 5-10, 190-pound Metcalf was a superior version of the Vikings' Palmer, excelling as a rusher, receiver and return man. He caught 104 passes for Atlanta in 1995, and was one of three Falcons to finish with 1,000 yards receiving. His receivers coach that season: Milt Jackson.

Maybe Lewis can be that productive, maybe not. But three years ago, the Ravens barely even expected him to contribute at receiver. Lewis is as surprised as anyone else that he evolved into a No. 1.

"I didn't really know where I would end up," he said, shaking his head. "At first, I was just happy to be in the league. Everyone was downgrading my size. I just wanted to get my opportunity to play."

He will get even more of an opportunity now.

But he can't do it alone.

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