Enigmatic Ravens wrap up camp

Roster is taking shape, but team hard to assess because it's so young

Pro Football

August 22, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

As the Ravens closed training camp at McDaniel College yesterday, the coaches were tying up loose ends and the players were tying up a couple of rookies.

Minutes after the final practice of camp ended, offensive tackle Dawani Fladger and safety Josh Robinson were taped back-to-back to a goal post and then splattered with shaving cream and water, a payback for not performing in the rookie talent show on Tuesday night.

Away from the mess, the Ravens' personnel and coaching staff were busy tidying up the roster.

The Ravens appear set on 45 of the 53 players they will take to Carolina for the Sept. 8 season opener. But while the roster is becoming clearer, the Ravens' identity remains cloudy.

"When we left here last year, we knew who the team was going to be and we knew what the expectations were," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "This year we're a long way from establishing what our team objectives are."

Pinning down the Ravens is so difficult because they're so young. They have been inconsistent in every phase from offense to defense to special teams.

The youth movement is evident in that 13 rookies make up that list of 45 players who have solidified roster spots. That number likely will grow as 18 players on the bubble fight over the last eight roster spots.

The Ravens need to pare down their roster to 65 players by Tuesday and will make their final cuts on Sept. 1.

"The 53 players we end up with will be worthy of playing in the NFL," Billick said. "That's better than I anticipated. What I'm excited about is that I anticipated at the end of camp, when I put my totals together for a 53-man roster, that numbers 49, 50, 51, 52 and 53 would be great kids, would give you everything they have, but probably don't belong in the NFL. That's not the case."

The biggest surprise of camp was safety Will Demps.

An undrafted rookie out of San Diego State, Demps has made two interceptions in the preseason, running one back for the game-winning touchdown in the opener. His nose for the ball has catapulted him from the third team to the starting lineup.

"He's kind of come out of nowhere," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said.

The rise of Demps has heated up the battle for the Ravens' two starting safety jobs, which has become the best competition of camp.

The Ravens likely will start the combination of Demps and Ed Reed, the team's first-round pick, in tomorrow's preseason game at Philadelphia. But the team still will look at Chad Williams and Anthony Mitchell, both of whom started the first two preseason games.

"It could be any two of the mix," Nolan said. "They have kept the competition going. I would leave it open right now."

The one who has exceeded camp expectations on the offensive side was receiver Ron Johnson.

In two preseason games, the rookie out of Minnesota has nine catches for 99 yards and scored the only touchdown for the Ravens' offense. Although a lack of blazing speed dropped Johnson in the NFL draft, he has proved that he might be a dependable target in this league.

"Did you expect Ron Johnson to have this kind of athletic ability being a fourth-round pick?" Billick said. "We picked him and even had to be surprised."

After wrapping up their seventh training camp in Westminster, the Ravens will continue to practice at their Owings Mills complex. In their final two preseason games, it will be up to those players on the bubble to surprise the Ravens.

On offense, Randy Hymes and Lonny Mitchell are battling over the fifth receiver spot. The offensive line has two openings for backups, and guard Mike Collins has the edge for one of them. Wes Pate is currently ahead to become the third-string quarterback, and Dameon Hunter probably will make the team as a tailback or fullback.

As for the defense, the team has been impressed with Jason Olford and Shawn Byrdsong in the secondary. Salem Simon has come on strong lately on the defensive line but he has to contend with Nate Bolling and Omari Jordan.

Then there are two players - kickoff specialist J.R. Jenkins and linebacker J.R. Johnson - who have excellent shots at making the roster because of their special teams play.

With all these young prospects, Billick has had to endure countless mistakes and lots of growing pains. But he still left training camp smiling, and it had nothing to do with two of his rookies being tied to a goal post.

"They're an incredible group," Billick said. "I just told them, this is the first time in four years that we did not have one player show up so much as one second late for a meeting or for weightlifting.

"What does that mean? It means they're trying, that they're listening. They're where they're supposed to be, doing what they're supposed to be doing. That in itself makes this a very successful camp."

Ravens' roster outlook

The Ravens, who are carrying 81 players on their roster, will trim to 65 on Tuesday. The final cutdown to the 53-man roster is Sept. 1. A look at how the roster is shaping up:

Offense

Quarterback (3)

In: Chris Redman and Jeff Blake.

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