Sams may give Ravens nice return on investment

On the Ravens

Ravens

August 29, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

ON A HOT, HUMID DAY during training camp recently, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was sitting outside the gym at McDaniel College. Only a few feet away, rookie B.J. Sams stood with his arm in a sling, the result of a broken thumb.

"That kid there, he could really be something special one day," said Newsome, nodding his head toward Sams. "I think he's going to be a player."

Sams, a rookie free agent out of McNeese State, made his NFL debut last night and could emerge as a major weapon for the Ravens this season. He can play at running back or wide receiver, but he created a buzz among a crowd of 69,552 at M&T Bank Stadium as a punt returner in the Ravens' 17-6 preseason win over the Detroit Lions.

It sounds so strange. A punt returner as a major weapon? But you have to remember we're talking about Ravens football here. They win ugly. Since 1999, Ravens football has been defense; predictable, unimaginative offense with a dominating running game; and solid special teams that win the field-position game.

Nothing will change much for the Ravens in the 2004 season. Second-year quarterback Kyle Boller will be inconsistent, the offensive line can run-block but struggles in pass protection, and the defense will again be one of the best in the league.

But the Ravens had a glaring hole in trying to find a punt returner, until last night anyway. No one knows if Sams is the answer yet, but he certainly became the No. 1 candidate last night, returning four punts for 40 yards and having an 89-yard touchdown run in the first quarter that was nullified because Musa Smith was penalized for running into the punter.

It was a bad call by the officials, but a good night for Sams.

"You see the potential," said Ravens special teams coordinator Gary Zauner. "He fielded the ball well, he read the blocker and he can make people miss. The kid has talent. We had to see if he could do it with the lights on. He did."

More importantly, Sams held onto the ball. That's what punt returner Lamont Brightful hasn't been able to do in training camp. He had been so bad that fans would cheer when he caught one in practice and boo him when he fumbled another.

Brightful also had problems at the end of last season determining when to make a fair catch. The talent has always been there, but Brightful's problems were part of a mental game that he was losing.

And the Ravens were running out of time. They already had a good field-goal kicker in Matt Stover and a decent punter in Dave Zastudil. They had excellent coverage players in linebackers Cornell Brown, Bart Scott and defensive end Adalius Thomas.

Now, they might have Sams.

His return of the opening punt of the game was a beauty. Actually, he made it look easy. He took the ball at the 11, ran to his left, picked up two blocks around the 30, and then made punter Nick Harris disappear with a nifty cutback move before blowing away everyone else for the touchdown.

It was called back, but Sams almost made something out of nothing a couple of times. Once he was boxed in, took a step up field, bolted to the outside, where he picked up two blocks, and turned virtually nothing into 15 yards. Another time he took a punt, darted to his left, was trapped, then reversed field for a 12-yard gain. If he had turned the corner, he may have scored.

Having a good punt returner is essential to the Ravens' style of play. The Ravens haven't had a consistently good returner since Jermaine Lewis left town in 2002. They've had Brightful, Dedric Ward and even used Ed Reed and Chris McAlister on occasion.

But the Ravens shouldn't risk full-time starters as return specialists. If Sams comes through, and there is no reason to think he shouldn't, it would cut down on the weaknesses and questions about the Ravens this season.

No one knows if Boller will play well this season. Receiver Kevin Johnson seems to be a good addition, but he isn't the vertical threat that is desperately needed. Cornerbacks Deion Sanders and McAlister are expected to show up this season, but nobody knows when. There is always concern about the lightweight defensive line wearing down at the end of the season.

But you know this defense is going to be good, and if the Ravens can win the field-position game with special teams, then they have already won two phases of the game.

Newsome and Phil Savage, the Ravens' director of player personnel, always seem to find college players that aren't high on draft lists, players like Thomas, center Mike Flynn, defensive end Marques Douglas and safety Will Demps.

Now they might have found another one in Sams, a return specialist who averaged 11 yards a punt return with three touchdowns and a 24.6-yard-per-kickoff average for McNeese, where he was also ninth in the nation last year in all-purpose yards with 166.9 a game.

"I had a lot of family watching, calling me and everything," said Sams, 5 feet 10, 173 pounds. "It was the first time I got out there and I was nervous until I got my hands on the ball. I wanted to show them [the Ravens] what I could do."

There was a time when I didn't have an idea of who would pick me, and I didn't think I would get picked by any team at all," he said. "But when the Ravens called and said I had an opportunity to return punts, kickoffs and make the team, my eyes got wide."

Sams opened quite a few himself last night.

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