Ravens' new toys ready to add to offensive fun

Lewis, Taylor complete unit's off-season tuneup

April 17, 2000|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

As the two first-round draft picks walked across the makeshift stage yesterday in their first visits to Baltimore as Ravens, coach Brian Billick smiled.

And then he smiled some more.

Last season, Billick's first with the club, he had to build an offense around players no one else in the league wanted. Yesterday, most of the offense of the future arrived with Tennessee running back Jamal Lewis and Florida receiver Travis Taylor.

Put them in the huddle with Pro Bowl tight end Shannon Sharpe, and Billick can't wait until training camp starts in July.

"On first down, hand the ball off to Jamal," Billick said of Lewis, the No. 5 overall pick in the NFL draft. "You're guaranteed 3, 4 or 5 yards. Or if there is one missed tackle, he has got the speed for a touchdown. You've got Shannon for the intermediate passes, and he'll get you down to the 10 unless you double him. But you have to be careful because we've got the speed to hit a couple of fades on the outside.

"Travis gives us that," Billick said of Taylor, the No. 10 overall selection. "He is a great route runner and has the ability to make a player miss and gain yards after the catch. That combination enhances our success in the red zone."

Both selected Saturday, Lewis and Taylor aren't just new offensive centerpieces, but part of the nucleus of the future. When the Ravens open the regular season against the Pittsburgh Steelers, nine of the team's projected 22 starters will be former and current No. 1 draft choices, seven of them selected by the Ravens, including linebackers Peter Boulware, Ray Lewis, cornerbacks Duane Starks, Chris McAlister, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, and Taylor and Lewis. The other two are safety Rod Woodson and defensive tackle Sam Adams, who signed a four-year deal with the team Saturday.

"That's probably been our strength; we've been very good in the first round," Billick said. "You have to have balance. We have five, possibly six Pro Bowlers defensively. Offensively, you're looking at two guys with Ogden and now Shannon. When you have that kind of imbalance, eventually, contractually, money-wise, it's going to cost you because at some point they're going to become due. You would like to go 11 on offense and 11 on defense. If you can go 3-3, that's decent. If you can go four by five, you're going to have a pretty good team.

"Let's go on the supposition that these guys are going to be as advertised," he said. "We have a young, balanced team that has a future for the next three or four years, one that I'm not going to say is cap-proof, but cap-manageable. By that, I mean we're not going to have to go out and sign that big-name free agent every year."

There are no guarantees that Lewis and Taylor will become Pro Bowl players, but the Ravens' success with former No. 1 players increases their chances of being quality players. Jamal Lewis' dedication has been on display the past two months. Ever since signing with agent Mitch Frankel, he has been working out in Minnesota Vikings receiver Cris Carter's camp in Florida.

Only the strong survive there.

"The thing that separates Cris' program is that it's not for everybody," Billick said. "Guys filter in, see the pace he has and leave. It was good for Randy Moss two years ago."

Said Lewis of the program: "You've got to be dedicated and disciplined if you want to go in and make progress. That's what I did before the combine, and I was in the best shape of my life. They focus on everything you really need in the game of football. They not only talk about the physical part, but the mental part of taking care of business."

Lewis, Priest Holmes and Jay Graham, also out of Tennessee, are the three running backs currently on the roster. Lewis wants to and expects to contribute right away. Neither the Ravens nor Lewis is concerned about the outside ligament he tore in his right knee two years ago.

Lewis and Taylor played in pro-style offenses at their respective schools, and running back and receiver are positions that don't require much of a learning curve.

"I'm happy to be here right now and playing for an organization like the Ravens," Taylor said. "I think we can have an impact. In Jamal's case, he is a great running back, and I've seen him do things at Tennessee that you don't usually see. We both have the opportunity to come in and contribute. If we work hard and have the dedication, our dreams will come true."

Said Lewis: "A lot is expected of us. I'm the No. 5 pick. Travis was the No. 10. I think we're ready to take on the responsibilities and go out and win some games."

Taylor might have a little more time to adjust than Lewis. The Ravens have two solid receivers in Patrick Johnson and Qadry Ismail. They also have Jermaine Lewis, who is on a mission this season to show critics that he can be a factor in Billick's offense.

But the Ravens can't wait to showcase their two new players. Both come from winning programs that are in the national championship picture every year. Both play in the Southeastern Conference, a favorite of Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel.

"I have an interest in what happens in the SEC because of my alma mater," said Newsome, who played at Alabama. "I had the opportunity to watch them the last three years. One of the reasons the SEC is so good is because the climate is conducive to the young athletes being out there 12 months a season.

"A lot of the kids mature as athletes, more so than in the northern part of the country, where you have to spend four or five months inside. Colleges are able to recruit from a bigger talent pool."

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