For Ravens, 3 might not be a crowd

Listed as third receiver, rookie Johnson pressing for notice, playing time

August 05, 2002|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Ten days into a blistering hot training camp, Ron Johnson, the Ravens' physically impressive fourth-round draft pick, has nearly cemented himself into the role initially projected for him.

Johnson is leaving no doubts that he can handle being the team's third wide receiver, showing remarkable toughness in the middle of the field, sure hands and deceptive speed down the sidelines.

While this camp opened with no offensive starting jobs available, there is always the story line in which a backup will vault his way into the lineup. The safer assumption had quarterback Jeff Blake dethroning Chris Redman.

Johnson, though, is pushing hard for that crown. Just what are the chances of the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Johnson displacing Brandon Stokley, who also is having a solid camp, during the regular season?

"It will be a nice problem to have," offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. "Brandon and Travis [Taylor] are still clearly ahead of Ron. They make less mistakes. They know the system better. But they all have unique qualities. Brandon has better speed than Ron, but Ron's got better size and strength than Brandon."

Ravens coach Brian Billick views his third wide receiver as a starter.

With tight end Todd Heap injuring his triceps last week and fullback Alan Ricard being a first-year starter, the Ravens have practiced more three-receiver sets than in the past.

Taylor, Johnson and Stokley have been the most potent.

"They've all got qualities to them that we're not going to be hung up on whose starting," Cavanaugh said. "We just want to make sure we get the best people on the field. And if that means all three of them, if a third wide receiver is better than one of our backs or tight ends, then that is the guy we will use."

The latter scenario would serve Stokley just fine. Healed from a knee injury that hampered him last year, Stokley, in his fourth season, is the oldest receiver and the one dishing out the tips to his colleagues.

If he is worried about losing his job, Stokley isn't showing it.

"I'm pulling for Ron to do well," Stokley said. "He's a good guy, and he's going to play well. I'm just going to do my thing and compete hard on every play.

"We're all going to have chances to make plays, and I think when we get those chances, we are going to make plays."

Stokley is in a different situation. In previous camps, he was the one pushing others for major playing time.

"He knows that he's the starter. And when you've got that label, there is a responsibility that comes with it," Cavanaugh said. "When you are trying to fight to replace somebody, if you don't do it, people say, `Well he's on the team, and he's a good guy to have, and if we need him, we'll use him.' But there is a responsibility being a starter. You have to be an example for everyone else, and he's embraced that.

"What he has to do now is be a leader. He's not a very vocal kid, not a guy that is going to gather everybody around. But when it's his rep, he's going full speed and he is doing what he is supposed to be doing. He rarely makes a mistake."

What Stokley is providing in savvy and speed, Johnson is giving in sheer power, both when he has the ball and when he does not.

"He plays physical. He's been schooled very well in run blocking," Cavanaugh said. "He's not afraid to get all over a defensive back, get on him and fight. That toughness carries over into his route-running. If someone comes up and gets in Ron's face, he better be ready because Ron is going to get himself some separation.

"His hands have been very good, his route-running has been very good. He's not a speed burner, but he knows how to use his speed to get to where the ball is going to be. I've been very impressed with him up until this point. He's got skills that we need, and he's playing up to them."

Johnson, though, is not becoming complacent.

"I'm just trying to learn, soak in all the information I can and play hard," Johnson said. "If I look comfortable, I'm glad. That is what I'm trying to do. But I'm still learning, trying to make sure I fit in."

Time will dictate whether that will be as the team's second or third receiver.

"[Johnson] just continues to impress me in understanding what he needs to do," Billick said. "The thing I'm impressed most with, as new situations come up, he may not know what he is doing, but he keeps his physicality up.

"But we're a long way from deciding who fills what role."

Next for Ravens

Preseason opponent:Detroit Lions

When:Friday, 8 p.m.

Site:Ravens Stadium

TV/Radio:Comcast SportsNet, Ch. 45/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (105.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3

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