Ravens' Figurs has Hester in his sights

August 27, 2007|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun reporter

As a rookie returner in the NFL, the Ravens' Yamon Figurs is trying to follow the same path as the Chicago Bears' Devin Hester, who ran back an NFL-record seven kicks for touchdowns in his first season.

But Figurs isn't used to trailing Hester.

When they were high school track stars in Florida, Figurs beat Hester in the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the 2001 regional and state championships.

"It was pretty close at regionals, but not when it came to states," Figurs said with a smile.

One of the quick-rising rookies in the Ravens preseason, Figurs had a more favorable route into the NFL because of Hester.

In previous years, Figurs would have been a late-round draft pick, like most speedy returners. But after Hester's big touchdown returns - including the longest one (92 yards) in Super Bowl history - the Ravens picked Figurs in the third round.

Figurs has begun to back up that first-day selection, breaking off long kickoff returns in the past two preseason games.

"[Hester] opened the gates for all return men," Figurs said. "It showed NFL teams how important special teams are. In the NFL, the talent level on offense and defense is the same, so if you get a touchdown on special teams, that's a game-changer, and Devin showed that."

Figurs could be the fastest player in the NFL, and he's proving to be a fast learner, too.

He has averaged 36.8 yards on four kickoff returns this preseason, recording a 36-yarder in Saturday night's 13-7 loss to the host Washington Redskins. His shortest return this summer has been 28 yards, which is more than B.J. Sams' average last season (25.7).

"His speed is eye-popping, and that's what we drafted him for," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We'll continue to see if he can expand on that."

The Ravens likely will feature Figurs on kickoff returns and keep Sams on punt returns because they don't want to put too much pressure on a rookie, with so much riding on this season.

The Ravens coaching staff remembers Sams' first season in 2004, when he let a punt go through his hands at the Ravens' 19-yard line in a 27-26 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. That muffed return could have been the difference in the 9-7 Ravens missing the playoffs that season.

But pacing Figurs doesn't mean the Ravens lack confidence in him. Team officials said they already know he will be a productive returner in the NFL.

"You could see it in college. He was explosive," special teams coach Frank Gansz said. "In our opinion, we felt like he was the best guy coming out."

Last season at Kansas State, Figurs had the longest punt return in the Big 12 with an 81-yarder for a touchdown against Illinois State and recorded a 52-yard punt return that set up a score in an upset of Texas.

He also returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown against Rutgers in the Texas Bowl.

Figurs continued to rise on the draft board after his workout for the NFL combine, where he posted a 4.26 in the 40-yard dash, the fastest time of any rookie in this year's draft class.

It's that speed that has helped Figurs make the transition from college to the NFL, which leaves little room for error in the return game.

"The guys are much more disciplined in the NFL," Figurs said. "They stay in the lanes and come down separated three yards apart from each other. You got to be fast."

Taking things slow is not apart of Figurs' game.

So whenever the Ravens need him to step up and take a bigger role, Figurs said he'll be ready.

"I'm pretty in the groove out there," Figurs said. "It shows me that I can get out there and play with these guys."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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