Top speed expected of top pick

Ravens' Jamal Lewis won't be coddled when camp opens

June 16, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The evolution of Jamal Lewis, rookie running back and fifth pick in the NFL draft, has come to this:

When the Ravens assemble in Westminster on July 23 for the start of training camp, it will be time to put on the pads and take off the kid gloves.

After 17 practices and four off-season camps, it's almost time to see just how good this 20-year-old prodigy is, and how much he can contribute in 2000.

"He's had enough of the gentle handling," coach Brian Billick said after the team's second minicamp closed yesterday. "He's going to be thrown into the fray [at Westminster].

"We've handled these kids as gingerly as we can, so as not to get them shellshocked. Now it's time to step up. You want to see how they can handle the pressure."

That goes for wide receiver Travis Taylor as well.

These are the two gems the Ravens pulled out of the first round last April, two promising young players from big-time programs who figure to play a major role in Billick's revamped offense.

But before they play, they have to sign. And the good news so far is that the H-word - holdout - has not yet been uttered.

"I plan on being in camp July 23," Taylor said. "I talk with my agent [Steve Weinberg] every day, or every other day."

That's Lewis' priority now, too, and he says he'll be actively involved in the process.

"That has to do with me, so I just can't put that in somebody else's hands," Lewis said. "Mitch [Frankel, his agent] keeps me informed on everything that's going on."

In this case, it's a matter of first things first, though. In order to clear room under the salary cap for their two first-round picks, the Ravens must do at least one of two things. They must get Pro Bowl tackle Jonathan Ogden signed to a new contract, or they must restructure the contract of Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis.

Lewis carries a 2000 cap number of $6.5 million; Ogden's is $5.321 million.

How important is getting the rookies to Westminster on time?

"It's vital," Billick said. "If you miss a practice, it's not going to kill you. What kills you is when an athlete is out a week, two weeks. That's time that cannot be recovered."

Jamal Lewis has made the most of his 17 practices, albeit without pads. He has found a comfort zone, yet is eager for the next phase.

"The camps have helped a lot," he said. "I think I've picked up a lot of the offense. The thing now is, I've got to get to where it's first nature, where I can pick up my reads and get out on my routes. I want to be able to go in and play a whole game."

For Lewis, powerfully built at 5 feet 11 and 231 pounds, that means catching the ball as well as he runs it. It means blocking when he does neither of the above.

The early returns on the Ravens' first-round investment are tantalizing.

"I think he's going to be the whole package," Billick said. "He's as advertised: a tremendous athlete, eye-catching quickness and speed that pops out at you, excellent hands.

"He has a pretty good feel for what we're doing, coming out of a system where he was asked to do a lot."

At the University of Tennessee, Lewis averaged more than 100 rushing yards a game over 26 games and caught 39 passes in little more than two seasons. He gained an understanding of the passing game from former teammate Peyton Manning, now quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts.

"Peyton taught me a lot about offense," Lewis said. "When he first went to Tennessee, he sat down with me and told me, `This will be the main thing you have to concentrate on, your pass protections.' "

"It's not that hard. You've just got to know your defenses and know how to pre-read the defense."

Matt Simon, Ravens running backs coach, said Lewis is making the mental transition as well as the physical.

"You can see he's a real competitor and wants to do well all the time," Simon said. "I am impressed with his attention to detail, how quickly he picks things up. He has a real good feel for the game. In the passing game, he has a good feel on how to get open and use his speed in space."

Lewis has had some adversity in his background, too. There was the reconstructive knee surgery he needed after tearing ligaments in his sophomore season at Tennessee. That cost him virtually all of the 1998 season.

Then there was the felony charge in connection to a shoplifting incident from his high school days in Atlanta. Lewis and two others were charged with stealing a shirt valued at $109.53 from a department store.

Lewis pleaded guilty and paid a $1,000 fine as a first-time offender, with three years' probation.

"There was a lesson to be learned because of what happened," he said. "It was something I didn't think was a big deal [at the time], but it was a big deal. Luckily, it happened when it did, when I was in high school. I was younger and immature then.

"I've matured and have put that behind me."

The fifth pick of the draft said he doesn't feel any pressure despite heightened expectations.

"I'm just happy to be a Baltimore Raven and be able to come into a good program like this and a great offense," he said. "I've got a lot of good people around me, and that's going to make me a better player. I'll do my part. We're just building now."

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