Will Ravens have ability to answer questions?

July 28, 2002|By Mike Preston

A year ago, the two biggest questions heading into training camp were: Can the Ravens repeat as Super Bowl champions? And how will quarterback Elvis Grbac fit in?

Now, as the Ravens start their first full week of training camp tomorrow, there are enough questions for a TV game show.

Who will become the go-to receiver, and who will end up as the No. 3? Can a lightweight defensive line survive the season? Who will become the quarterback of the future? Has running back Jamal Lewis fully recovered from a major knee injury? Is it a 3-4 defense or a 4-3?

The 2002 Ravens are a collection of solid rookie prospects, several key veterans, and blue-light specials. There are no lofty expectations. Treat the Ravens like your 401(k): Appreciate the past, stick with it for the present, and remain optimistic for the future.

The Ravens' motto is one word: development. Translation: five, maybe six wins at the max.

"I think we have a great foundation of young players," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' senior vice president of football operations. "We've also had the opportunity for some of our players to have worked with Pro Bowlers and future Hall of Famers. They've been around guys who knew how to prepare and how to handle themselves on and off the field. They can share what they've learned with the younger players."

Maybe only the Florida Marlins and Chicago Bulls dismantled championship teams so quickly. The Ravens made the right move a year ago by trying to load up and win a second straight championship, but they shouldn't have ended up so deep in salary cap jail.

This has been solitary confinement. Seven starters are gone from the league's best defense, and six starters have left from the offense, including the two top receivers. The only significant free agent signed was No. 2 quarterback Jeff Blake.

"I've been with this franchise full time since 1984," said Ravens president David Modell. "In that span, we have gone through three systems of how we retain players. Under the cap system, it was a very changed world. This is not a small rebuilding job."

It's massive, and the Ravens have very little depth. Thirteen backups of the 22 starters are either rookies or first-year players. It's going to be a long season. But this team will get back into contention within two or three years.

Right now, the Ravens' most pressing need is to find out where Lewis is in his comeback attempt. He says he should be 100 percent by the beginning of the regular season, and if you believe that, close your eyes and blow out the candles again.

Lewis' injury, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, is basically a two-year injury. If he can play reasonably well, it would still take a lot of pressure off third-year quarterback Chris Redman and an inexperienced defense.

Redman can own this town. He is young, smart and can make all the necessary throws. But now he has to show that he can play in games. Fans are tired of "taking a leap of faith" with retreads. They want to grow up with their own quarterback.

It will be interesting to see how Redman handles having Blake behind him. Blake throws a better long ball, and has stated his intentions to start, and not become a tutor.

Now, if only the quarterbacks can find receivers ...

The Ravens have little speed on the outside. The book on Travis Taylor reads good hands, good routes, but lacks great speed and consistency. Ditto for fellow wide-out Brandon Stokley. Taylor makes yards after catches, but disappears from games, partly because a lot of skilled players have dropped off the radar under Brian Billick.

The Ravens also want to find a No. 3 receiver and No. 2 running back. Receiver candidates are Ron Johnson and fellow rookies D.J. Humphries, Javin Hunter and first-year player Kenyon Hambrick. Good luck. No speed in this group either. Bet on Johnson, who played well late in the last minicamp.

The running backs are rookies Chester Taylor and Tellis Redmon. Taylor, out of Toledo, has better size and speed than the Ravens initially believed.

The Ravens have just as many problems on defense. The starting line averages 281 pounds. Ray Lewis has two new starting linebackers to work with, and three new members in the secondary. The Ravens keep sending out mixed signals about running a 3-4 compared to a 4-3. Regardless if they ran a gap eight or 52 monster, it won't make much of a difference with this group.

This season is not about X's and O's. It's about the future.

"We have to answer certain questions about individuals filling certain voids, and then answer questions about if this team can jell," said Modell. "If we can answer those two things, at the end of the day that will impact wins and losses. Then we'll find out if we're taking positive steps in the right direction."

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