Trio of rookie linebackers together in big-hit harmony

ON THE RAVENS

August 11, 2007|By MIKE PRESTON

Training camp had barely begun when running back Willis McGahee took a handoff and was gliding to the hole. From nowhere, rookie linebacker Prescott Burgess stretched out McGahee with a vicious hit - one that took away the collective breath of the crowd.

"I don't think McGahee anticipated it," said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. "He got to the edge, it looked clear and Prescott came from nowhere and tagged him. The hit let him know this ain't Buffalo, and we play down here in practice."

The hit was also a statement.

In the Ravens' brief history, never has a rookie class been so unafraid to tangle with the veterans - especially the linebackers. Making an impression so far in training camp are fourth-round pick Antwan Barnes from Florida International, Burgess, a sixth-round selection from Michigan, and Edgar Jones, a free agent from Southeast Missouri State.

Barnes was expected to contribute right away, possibly as a third-down pass rusher opposite Suggs. But in Burgess and Jones, the Ravens might have found another Adalius Thomas or Bart Scott, who were long shots to make the team but became Pro Bowl players.

"In the fourth- and sixth-round picks, I think we got a couple of guys who can help us this year," said Jeff FitzGerald, the team's linebackers coach. "We're going to need to get them some reps quickly in the preseason, because they could become viable help once the regular season starts."

Help? Barnes prefers to look at it another way.

"We got a lot of good rookies here," Barnes said. "I think we will be the determining factor in this team going to the Super Bowl. Last year, they went 13-3, so we might be that little bit they need to get to the next level."

This group of linebackers has the same confidence as veteran starters Suggs, Scott and Ray Lewis.

A couple of days ago, backup quarterback Kyle Boller rolled right to throw a pass. Even though quarterbacks aren't supposed to be hit, Burgess came charging hard on the play and dived at Boller as he was throwing.

They don't care.

Burgess, Jones and Barnes came to Baltimore to make a name for themselves - and they have.

"I like them," Suggs said. "They fit in. Prescott comes from a traditional school. Barnes is really an explosive pass rusher, and could be the piece we're missing off the edge when we have four rushers."

And Jones?

"He can run, and he's got some punch," FitzGerald said.

Barnes, though, is more at his natural position right now than the other two. The Ravens want an outside rusher and Barnes has amazing quickness. His first step is lightning fast, and it would be interesting to see him rushing the quarterback with Trevor Pryce and Suggs.

They could cause all kinds of problems, both inside and outside. Barnes' only problem is that he'll have to drop into coverage at times, instead of always going forward as he did at Florida International. He also looks smaller than the 6 feet 1, 240 pounds listed on the roster.

"He's only had a limited number of drops coming out of that position," FitzGerald said. "We're starting to see some really nice things coming out of him in terms of awareness, drop angles and understanding in terms of type of technique we want him to use."

Burgess has the prototypical size (6-3, 240). He is mechanically sound, having played at Michigan. The Ravens like his versatility. He played outside linebacker during his last two seasons in college, and he has practiced at both inside and outside linebacker with the Ravens.

Thomas and Scott were just as versatile when they came to Baltimore. The only knock on Burgess coming out of Michigan was a slow 40-yard dash time.

"We played him at inside for part of the OTAs [organized team activities], then shifted him to outside linebacker for the other half," FitzGerald said. "In this training camp, he had played both. Things got a little clogged for him last week, but he is starting to sort things out. He's got some pure football in him, and plays with good vision."

Jones is more of a project. He played defensive end in college but has been a pass-rushing outside linebacker in training camp. At 6-3, 263, he will eventually be moved to the strong side, but the Ravens are trying to make the transition as easy as possible. It's easier to go forward at first than trying to learn how to play all over the field. Jones is relentless in his pursuit of runners, especially to the opposite side of the field.

"Everything coming to Edgar is new, and he has handled it well," FitzGerald said. "But he has some things mentally and physically that will probably lead him to the other side [strong side]."

Regardless, it's a good group that's loaded with talent. All three rookies are enthusiastic, they enjoy the game and they all listen. They're learning from some of the game's best.

"Sometimes I just sit down, and listen to them talk," Barnes said. "What sometimes comes out of their mouths is funny, but also comes out a lot of wisdom. If you want to someday be the best, you might as well learn from the best."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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