Starting Over

July 26, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | By Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

One year removed from a season to remember, the Ravens crumbled in an off-season to forget.

A salary cap crunch led to a 50 percent turnover from last season's team and the severing of ties with nine starters from the Super Bowl XXXV championship team.

The Ravens begin their monumental rebuilding task today when they open training camp at McDaniel College (formerly Western Maryland College). The Ravens' seventh training camp in Westminster will span 27 days and feature 35 practices.

So, is there any hope in a season considered by many as hopeless?

"I like [Florida State coach] Bobby Bowden's comments this year when he said, `Get your licks in because we're young, but we're getting older by the day,' " Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I'm excited about where we're headed."

Will Chris Redman become a legitimate NFL quarterback?

It's a question that no one can truly answer right now.

While backup Jeff Blake is probably the better player at this stage, the rebuilding Ravens have to find out if Redman (left) is their quarterback for the future. A third-round pick in the 2000 draft, Redman has yet to break a sweat in an NFL game, throwing a total of three passes.

Redman's upside is his natural leadership and his accuracy. He has improved with every off-season camp and delivers the ball fluidly on the short and intermediate routes.

Although Redman will sometimes lock onto receivers too long, he has absorbed the offense at a quick rate and just needs to speed up his decision-making. He also has to avoid the usual pitfall of first-year quarterbacks by limiting his turnovers.

But many factors relating to Redman's productivity will be out of his control. His success depends heavily on the health of Jamal Lewis and the growth of Travis Taylor and Todd Heap.

Is the 3-4 defense best suited for this team?

If the Ravens were going exclusively to a 3-4 defense (three linemen and four linebackers), they would be making a terrible mistake.

While that scheme would highlight the rushing abilities of outside linebackers Peter Boul ware (right) and Adalius Thomas, it would limit the talents of two of their best players, line backer Ray Lewis and defensive end Michael McCrary. Lewis would have one fewer lineman shielding him from blockers, and McCrary is considered too small to cover two gaps.

But the Ravens intend to use the 3-4 defense only 30 percent of the time and will rotate back into a 4-3 look to avoid wearing down a thin front seven.

How far will the Ravens plummet this season?

Very far. With one of the youngest teams in the league, the Ravens could bottom out this season, rebuilding in a division in which the other three teams are on the rise.

It's going to take more than one season for the Ravens to replace their top two receivers, seven starters from a fearsome defense and the game's most dangerous return specialist.

The season depends heavily on the surgically reconstructed knee of Jamal Lewis. A fully re covered Lewis would allow the Ravens to go back to a ball-control game, taking the offen sive burden off Redman and keeping a revamped defense off the field.

BIGGEST SLEEPERS

Kenyon Hambrick, J.R. Johnson and J.R. Jenkins

The Ravens have had a surprisingly good success rate with NFL Europe veterans, from Anthony Mitchell to Jason Brookins, and Hambrick could extend that run. Hambrick caught 28 passes for 407 yards and three touchdowns this spring and could become a major figure in the Ravens' uncertain receiving corps.

Johnson will make the team only on his unique ability to play gunner (the outside coverage man on punts, usually a job handled by receivers and cornerbacks). A great athlete with 4.3 speed and a 39-inch vertical leap, he could be a special find on special teams.

Another dark horse to watch is Jenkins, who could earn his way onto the team as a kickoff specialist. Last year, the Ravens used a valuable roster spot on kickoff specialist Danny Kight and were disappointed in his results.

PLAYERS ON THE RISE

Todd Heap and Anthony Mitchell

Heap is a big target, and Mitchell is a big hitter.

To sustain drives, the Ravens need to fill the void of tight end Shannon Sharpe, who accounted for 23 percent of his team's catches the past two seasons. Though Heap isn't expected to replace Sharpe as the team's charismatic leader, he has to step up into the role of go-to receiver. At this point in their careers, Heap has more potential to break a long run after a catch than Sharpe.

On defense, one Ravens official said no one has improved more during the off-season than Mitchell. But as was the case with former Ravens strong safeties Kim Herring and Corey Harris, critics are questioning Mitchell's status as a starter in the league. A linebacker in college, he will be an asset in run support but needs to develop better hands to make interceptions.

PLAYERS ON THE SPOT

Travis Taylor and Gary Baxter

Two former high draft picks have the pressure of high expectations this season.

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