Even yawns unaffordable luxury for three Ravens

July 31, 2002

THE SNOOZE PERIOD is over. It's time for the Ravens' sleepers to answer the wake-up call and play.

On most NFL teams, a sleeper gets a two-, three- or four-year window to develop within the system, probably at least one year on the developmental squad. The helter-skelter Ravens aren't in that situation. It's play now, ask questions later.

In the past, the Ravens have produced such sleepers as running back Priest Holmes, guard/center Mike Flynn and outside linebacker Adalius Thomas. Last year, it was guard Bennie Anderson, tight end Jonathan Burrough and cornerback Alvin Porter. This season, the top three sleepers are fullback Alan Ricard, running back Chester Taylor and outside linebacker Shannon Taylor.

"Based on our situation as far as rebuilding, a sleeper is different," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' senior vice president of football operations. "Based on an injury situation, they might be forced to take significant snaps or provide us with solid depth."

Ricard has the most pressure because he is a starter with no apparent backup. Ravens coach Brian Billick wants to play smash-mouth football from a two-tight-end set.

But you can't play power football without a lead blocker. In the previous two seasons, the Ravens had one of the best in the game in Sam Gash, who became one of many salary cap casualties in the off-season. If the Ravens can manage to restructure the contracts of linebackers Peter Boulware and Ray Lewis, Gash would become a top signing priority.

But for now, the 5-11, 237-pound Ricard is the guy.

Thus far, Ricard has been fairly impressive. Oh, he'll drop short passes coming out of the backfield and can't get a lot of separation from linebackers on pass plays.

But that's not what a fullback does in this offense. He just annihilates anything that gets in front of running back Jamal Lewis.

"He is physical and likes contact," said Newsome. "He can get his hat on the right guy, and that's what you need from a fullback."

Ricard finds himself in a new role. Only in his second year, he has been cut twice, by the Ravens and by Dallas. If he fails this time around, there probably won't be a next. If he doesn't succeed, look for the Ravens to possibly add an H-back, possibly Burrough or John Jones, much like they did in Billick's first year, with Greg DeLong as an occasional lead blocker.

"This feels good. It's a great opportunity," Ricard said. "It's something every guy wants, to be a starter. I want to make the best of it right now. I'm trying to get better every day. Brian is right - I'm a key, just like every offensive lineman. I'll take the challenge, and look forward to it."

Chester Taylor might not have as much of a learning curve. Publicly, team officials won't say much about him because they don't want to put a lot of pressure on the sixth-round pick out of Toledo. But privately, they're excited.

Other teams were doubtful of him because, though he gained 1,429 yards last season, it was at Toledo. But he did what pro scouts wanted him to do at a small school: He dominated with 20 touchdowns and a 5.3-yards-a-carry average.

"We like the way he carries his pads," Newsome said. "He seems like he has natural running instincts. He weighs about 215 pounds or better. He is bigger than Priest Holmes, but not as elusive or fast."

Chester Taylor can also catch passes out of the backfield, a major consideration in Billick's offense. But he is a rookie, and first-year players have a tendency to wear down as full-time starters. Whether or not he is the starter, he will probably get playing time as No. 2 behind Lewis.

Lewis, coming off major knee surgery a year ago, has been impressive in training camp, but the Ravens have been holding him out of full-contact drills. They don't want to risk getting him hurt, but they're also slapping his fingers for coming into training camp at 245 pounds, not 235.

There is no excuse for that. Lewis said he would come into camp looking like Superman. The man of steel was never overweight. Maybe Lewis couldn't find a phone booth along Route 140 to Westminster.

"Right now, I'm keeping up with the speed of the game, but the pro game is much more physical than in college," said Chester Taylor, who suffered a severe ankle bruise yesterday morning and will miss at least the next two days of practice.

"I have to adjust to it. I don't know how much time I'm getting, but right now in practice, I'm taking a lot of reps. We'll see how I do when the games come."

Shannon Taylor has proved he can play. He played in 11 games last season before being placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. He finished with five tackles, one sack, a fumble recovery and nine tackles on special teams.

He also left a lasting impression with his pass-rushing ability. The guy can bring the heat and has the potential to become the third-best pass rusher on the team behind Boulware and defensive end Michael McCrary. With Boulware out because of an ankle injury, Shannon Taylor is taking all the repetitions in camp.

But once Boulware returns, Taylor is expected to move to the weak side, where he'll challenge Thomas for playing time, or the team could move the 270-pound Thomas to defensive end.

"This is all a blessing for me," Shannon Taylor said. "The more reps I get, the better. I'm able to show coaches I can handle it, that I can play on the edge, be a pass rusher and show them my athleticism in space. I've always been able to set up guys, get up the field with quickness and speed, and then move back inside with a slap move."

Now, he has to prove he can play in that capacity nearly full time. Ricard and Chester Taylor also need to make decent showings. It's possibly a make-or-break year for two of the three, and possibly on-the-job training for another.

They can't sleep any longer. They have to play now.

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