WHICH DUANE STARKS will show up for the 2000 season? Will it be the one who tied for the NFL rookie interception lead (five) with Charles Woodson in 1998 and came on strong to close the 1999 season? Or will it be the lethargic one who was benched after games last year because he seemed so tentative on the field?
No one knows for sure, but one thing is certain: The third-year cornerback out of the University of Miami is due for a breakout season, and it better happen soon.
Now, as a matter of fact.
The Ravens drafted Starks in the first round in 1998, the No. 10 pick overall. They have seen him dominate games, but not consistently for an entire season.
"I would say so," said Starks, 5 feet 10 and 170 pounds. "It's time for me to go out and showcase my talent to the world and help this team out. I want to be a lot better than last year. I thought I had a pretty good season, especially at the end. That's when I learned a lot more because things started to become second nature. I'm trying to pick up where I left off, to have a consistent and great season."
Starks has had a strong training camp and performed well in preseason game No. 2 last night against the New York Jets at PSINet Stadium, a 10-0 victory for the Ravens. Starks broke up a pass intended for receiver Dedric Ward with 8:23 left in the first quarter, and then knocked down a pass from quarterback Ray Lucas to Ward on the next play.
But Starks started strong last year in training camp, too. But after the entire team had problems stopping the St. Louis Rams in the opener, others regrouped, but Starks didn't recover until the second half of the season.
He was benched in favor of DeRon Jenkins in Game 6 and didn't start for the rest of the season.
There are a number of theories. One is that the Ravens played too much zone, and Starks' forte is man-to-man coverage. Another is that he is so talented and picked things up so quickly, he became bored and lost concentration.
There is also the youth factor.
"He is a young guy," said Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis. "He is a young guy playing a position that you have to have a mind-set that says, If you get beat on this play or that play, you will still come back. That's what he was going through. But Duane is the type of player who keeps fighting. He will bounce back. He did bounce back."
Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said Starks had the same problem at Miami. It's a lack of concentration.
"Butch Davis [University of Miami coach] told us about it when Duane came out of college," Lewis said. "He said there was no lack of talent or a learning problem. He said Duane had a habit of relaxing a touch. He would play well against some guys, but relax against other players who he didn't think were on the same level. Then he had to start playing uphill again.
"He had to understand that in the NFL, everybody is on the same level, but some are more athletic than others. When you get guys down, you don't let up. I think he has figured it out."
Starks said: "True enough, it was easy for me to pick things up compared to other people, but I wouldn't say I got bored out there. I have realized there is so much more I can learn. I guess if you go 100 percent all the time, you will overcome what slows you down."
The Ravens can't afford to have Starks at a lower level. Jenkins played well in spots last season, but signed a free-agent contract with San Diego during the off-season.
As for the 2000 season, James Trapp and Robert Bailey are capable backups, but they aren't Starks unless you combine them. Trapp has Starks' speed, and Bailey has his nose for the ball.
But with a stud like second-year player Chris McAlister on the other side, teams will go after Starks.
"This is a key year for the secondary, especially on the corners," said Ray Lewis. "A lot of teams know he is athletic, but also small. A lot of teams are going to come at him, but we believe Duane is up for that type of challenge."
That is true. He was the second cornerback chosen in the draft in 1998 after Woodson. He had 50 tackles in 1998 and 41 last season. He is great at using his hands in man to man coverage and fearless coming up to make tackles on running plays. He knocked down 23 passes last season, second best on the team, as a part timer.
He worked hard in the off-season, and this could be his best year ever.
"He has speed, he tackles well," Lewis said. "He worked hard in the off-season and kept his weight up. It all seems to be a natural fit."
"I'm more relaxed now than I've ever been in the last two years," Starks said. "I know what I'm doing, I know the calls. I'm not getting yelled at as much as I did the past two years. I've limited my mistakes, that's a good thing.
"I just want to go out there, do a great job and make a name for myself."
It's about time.