Ward savors return to NFL

RAVENS NOTEBOOK

One of Pats' final cuts, veteran receiver to fill punt-return backup role

Pro Football

October 07, 2003|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Receiver Dedric Ward caught a red-eye flight from Las Vegas on Sunday night and arrived with the Ravens in time to make yesterday's practice, then admitted the whirlwind trip left him with little idea of what the team expects from him.

"Obviously, they have some quality guys here. I don't know exactly what my role is or how I can contribute," said Ward, a seven-year veteran now with his fourth team. "But I'm going to come in here and try and provide some leadership and maybe some different things that the guys haven't seen or heard, and hopefully we can help each other to become successful."

Ward may have been unclear where he stands with the Ravens, but coach Brian Billick was not. Ward, who has experience returning punts, will be asked to do that in a backup capacity to Lamont Brightful.

The Ravens released cornerback Alvin Porter to make room for Ward, who signed a one-year, $655,000 contract.

"He gives us some additional options return-wise," Billick said. "As you can see when we drop an Ed Reed back there, it's always a concern, not because Ed can't handle the package, but Ed is already taking 65, 70 snaps a game [as a safety]."

Ward averaged 10.6 yards on 16 punt returns last season for the Miami Dolphins. He signed a free-agent contract with the New England Patriots during the offseason and had a strong preseason but was one of the team's final cuts.

With the Dolphins the past two years, Ward was used primarily on third downs and had 40 receptions for 381 yards.

His most productive season came in 2000 with the New York Jets, who drafted Ward in the third round in 1997. Ward started every game and had career highs in catches (54) and receiving yards (801) and added three touchdowns.

The Ravens brought Ward in for a workout last week, days after a concussion forced Brightful out of the fourth quarter of the Kansas City Chiefs game, when Reed subsequently fumbled away one of his three punt returns.

"I'm just excited about my opportunity," said Ward, 5 feet 9, 185 pounds. "Being out of football the last few weeks, working out on your own is a little different than being in an organization.

"I don't know who they have [returning punts] now and what the status of it is. I'll leave that up to the coaches. If I'm the guy, I'll be ready to go."

Billick did not set a timetable on when he thinks Ward will be able to play. The Ravens also could look to use Ward, who has excellent hands, in fair catch situations over Brightful.

Brightful is averaging 7.3 yards a return this season.

Sapp set to return

The Ravens will have a healthy Gerome Sapp at practice this week and the standout special teams rookie should be available, if the team so chooses, Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.

Sapp had been one of the team's best special teams players before missing the past two games with a knee injury.

"I'll be able to go definitely this week," Sapp said. "They are doing everything they can to get me ready."

Replacing E. Smith

Marcel Shipp will start at running back Sunday for the Cardinals, replacing Emmitt Smith, who's out indefinitely with a broken left shoulder blade.

"Their running game doesn't change dramatically, style-wise," Billick said. "Certainly with the individual involved, you have to respect Emmitt Smith. They don't become a different style of team with the other guys in there."

AFC North `dogfight'

What does being in sole possession of first place mean to the Ravens? Very little at this point in the season, according to Billick.

The Ravens took over the AFC North lead Sunday night when the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-3) lost to the Cleveland Browns (2-3).

"It's early in the season," Billick said. "They understand that, but that is where we are. And we've earned the position we're in, all that a 2-2 record can give you. When you watch a Cleveland battle back the way they have against San Francisco and now Pittsburgh, that shows you what this league is all about. It's a dogfight until the very end."

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