Starting power

ON THE RAVENS

Opportunity knocks at linebacker

As Suggs holds out, Jones, Barnes step forward

July 26, 2008|By MIKE PRESTON

It's hot, humid, and sweat is pouring down their faces. On a day when most people are cooped up somewhere with air conditioning, Ravens outside linebackers Edgar Jones and Antwan Barnes are running in the heat, dropping about 10 pounds of water weight a day.

And they love every minute of it.

With Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs probably sitting out the preseason because of his franchise-player designation, Jones, Barnes and veteran linebacker Gary Stills have been getting most of the repetitions as Suggs' replacement.

While Stills is the most experienced of the three, he is probably drawing the least interest because he is one of two Ravens' special teams aces. Also, Jones and Barnes are second-year players who are ready to excel.

A year ago, both made the roster as reserves and played sparingly. Now, at least for the moment, the Ravens are asking them to become specialized starters.

"Obviously, you wish Suggs was here," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "But since he isn't, those two guys can't get enough reps. Barnes is an explosive athlete who has got to get better in the running game, not where he is just on the field for a play.

"Edgar has come a long way, from a small college, and he just keeps getting better every day," Ryan said. "I think he can become a good one."

Barnes was the Ravens' fourth-round pick out of Florida International in April 2007. Despite Barnes' school-record 23 career sacks for the Golden Panthers, NFL teams backed off because he was only 6 feet 1 and 240 pounds.

The Ravens didn't. They don't care whether their linebackers are undersized, as long as they can run to the ball. Ray Lewis isn't overly big, and neither is Bart Scott. But they have explosiveness, great instincts and a passion for the game.

So does Barnes.

Last season, he played in 14 games but didn't do so regularly on defense until late in the season. He finished with eight tackles, including two sacks, and had several quarterback hurries.

Barnes will see more playing time on defense early this season. With Trevor Pryce in the middle, the Ravens can use any combination of blitzing linebackers on the outside - or inside for that matter - with Barnes and Scott and Suggs. It can create many problems for offenses, especially in pass protection.

But the Ravens want him to be more than just a pass-rushing specialist. As training camp opened yesterday for the full squad, Barnes was in the lineup on first and second downs. He was also lining up at strong-side linebacker, opposite the tight end.

"I know what I need to work on, and that's to improve my run-blocking abilities," Barnes said. "This season, I've added about 10 pounds, and I'm over the 250-pound mark. This is a good opportunity for me because I can show what I can do.

"I've matured a lot, and basically, this is not much different from a year ago. But at practice, the tempo is a lot faster and the head coach is more into it.

"It's a challenge, but it's a good challenge in terms of learning to become more of a complete player."

Jones has always been a complete player, but he hasn't been able to stay at one position for long. He was a defensive end and outside linebacker at Southeast Missouri State but was not drafted.

He signed with the Ravens as a free agent last summer, and the Ravens moved him to inside and outside linebacker. At 6-3, 263 pounds, Jones is the prototype.

He is big and physical enough to play inside, and quick and fast enough to play outside. He has already been compared to Adalius Thomas, the former Ravens Pro Bowl outside linebacker who's now with the New England Patriots.

"I've been at the strong-side position as well as the rush position," Jones said. "I did a lot of conditioning before I came to camp, and I'm glad I did because I've been taking a lot of reps. But it's been good though, because I'm learning two positions and going back and forth.

"I'm way ahead of last year, feeling more confident. Last year was harder, more difficult. I'm more comfortable. Now, I just got to put my head in the playbook more."

Jones played in only four games last season, but he and Barnes might be called into action early, especially if Suggs doesn't report in good shape. The Ravens have a game plan, and these two young backups should be able to turn in consistent efforts.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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