On a personnel level, Ravens rating high

League scouts like defense, give club good shot at postseason

September 01, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

It's a football bromide that offense sells tickets and defense wins championships.

It also helps explain why the Ravens, despite an unproven offense, have a good shot at making the playoffs for the first time this season.

Their defense ranked second in the league last season and has nine starters returning, with tackle Sam Adams replacing suspended Larry Webster and cornerback Duane Starks replacing DeRon Jenkins, who left in free agency.

The Sun recently asked five NFL personnel men to anonymously rate the Ravens position-by-position so they would be free to give candid opinions, and they all raved about the defense.

When one was asked if he wanted to start with the quarterbacks, he responded, "Why don't we start with the defense?"

With the Ravens this year, it all starts with the defense.

With apologies to defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, who is likely to ride this defense to an NFL head coaching job, one of the personnel men said: "You and I could coach that defense. It ought to be good with all those draft picks. They've got a ton of talent over there. Phil Savage [the director of college scouting] keeps doing a great job. How many No. 1s do they have?"

The answer is six.

They drafted Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Chris McAlister and Duane Starks on the first round, and signed two free agents, Adams and Rod Woodson, who were drafted by their original teams with top 10 picks in the draft.

In the end, though, the personnel men agreed that the offense - particularly quarterback Tony Banks - has to be effective if the Ravens are to make the playoffs.

"It's up to the quarterback," one personnel man said. "They've probably got 20 or 21 people in place. If the quarterback makes it 22, they'll make the playoffs. If the position is a problem, it'll be difficult to make the playoffs."

"I'd be shocked if they don't make the playoffs with their defense unless the quarterback completely lays an egg," another personnel man said.

"I'm a big believer that if you can play defense, you're always in the hunt for a playoff spot," one of the scouts said.

Another personnel man said: "They knew what their problems were [offense], and they were addressed [by signing tight ends Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates and drafting running back Jamal Lewis and receiver Travis Taylor]. We'll see if their solutions were the right ones. You still don't feel all the aces are on their side offensively."

How Jamal Lewis, who missed most of camp with a dislocated elbow, plays was cited as a key by another club official.

"A lot of it comes down to Jamal Lewis. More than anybody else, he can tip the balance from being a .500 team to a definite playoff contender," he said.

The scouts also mentioned that being in the AFC Central - the only six-team division in the NFL - could be an advantage.

After going 6-4 in the division last season, they figure to sweep the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals again and have a good shot at sweeping Pittsburgh because of the Steelers' unsettled quarterback situation. If they then split with either the Titans and Jaguars or both to go 7-3 or 8-2 in the division, they'd only need a modest 3-3 or 2-4 record in their other six games to go 10-6 and probably capture a playoff berth.

"The Browns may not win a game this year. Cincinnati is Cincinnati. Pittsburgh is not very good. There's six wins. If they get one from Jacksonville, I think they're a playoff team," said one personnel man.

Here's a position-by-position breakdown on the Ravens:

Quarterbacks

Banks heads into the season as the starter, which is a familiar role for him. In four years in the league (the first three in St. Louis), he's played in 56 games and started 53.

Despite all that experience, he still has to prove himself, and he's fumbled 57 times. The Ravens gave him a $2 million signing bonus in a backloaded four-year deal, so they don't have a long-term commitment to him if he falters.

Trent Dilfer is waiting in the wings if Banks falters. Rookie Chris Redman has a lot of potential, but this is a learning year for him. He doesn't figure to play unless Banks and Dilfer are injured.

"If he [Banks] plays the way everybody hopes, there's no doubt they're a playoff contender," said one personnel man. "Consistency is a problem for him. He's a typical young quarterback. They have enough talent that as long as he can keep the train on the track, they ought to be OK."

"He has a big-time arm, but he has to make plays consistently," another said. "He can go 6-for-6 one quarter and 0-for-6 the next."

Opinion was mixed on Dilfer. One personnel man said: "I'm not crazy about their backup situation. Dilfer has had a lot of opportunities to prove he's a good quarterback. I don't think he's a capable starter."

But another personnel man said: "Dilfer's a quality backup should you get in trouble. That little security blanket is going to be welcome."

Running backs

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