Ravens rookie sleepers to watch

Steele, McLaughlin, McClellan are long shots to make team, but they impress

August 11, 2010|Mike Preston

When Ravens coach John Harbaugh was criticizing his first-string defense last week for allowing too many rushing yards to the second-team offense, he was actually giving a backhanded compliment to University of Memphis running back Curtis Steele.

The kid can play.

And when the Ravens play the Carolina Panthers tonight in the preseason opener, there are two rookie sleepers to keep an eye on besides Steele. One is fullback Mike McLaughlin out of Boston College, and the other is Marshall outside linebacker Albert McClellan.

All three are free agents, which means they are long shots to make the team. But so far in training camp, they've been impressive.

Now, let the games begin.

"This has been the toughest time of my life," McLaughlin said. "The hardest thing is executing one play. If I can go out and block somebody, and allow the running back to go up through the hole, then I'm the happiest player on the field. The hardest thing is doing that play after play, which is something I haven't done, but am learning how to do. It's all about consistency."

All three have waited for this moment, but they aren't sure when their time will come. It could come as early as the second quarter or as late as the fourth. Regardless, you have to be ready.

"Growing up in my neck of the woods, everybody wants to be famous," said McClellan, who grew up in Lakeland, Fla., the same hometown as Ray Lewis. "We have some other players in the league as well, and everybody wants to make it to the next level after college. This is a dream come true."

Like McClellan, Steele has been extremely impressive. At Memphis, Steele had 1,000-yard seasons in his last two years, including a 6.3 average on 198 carries as a senior.

Steele does just about everything well. He has a good body, vision and acceleration to bounce outside. His legs keep moving after initial contact. He doesn't look fast, but no one catches him from behind. His slender build is a concern, but that can be remedied with a year in the weight room.

"I'm underweight right now, about 196, and they want me to get to 205, so a year in the weight room would help," Steele said. "I think I have performed well, and Coach Cam [offensive coordinator Cam Cameron] likes me a lot. He is always on me. I just have to slow my game down. Sometimes I get a little antsy carrying out my assignments."

Steele has the right attitude. He could have gone to Kansas City or Houston, but came to Baltimore, a team with Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and Le'Ron McClain.

"Competition. I'm a competitor," Steele said.

So is McClellan. In years past, the Ravens have done an outstanding job in finding linebackers through the draft and free agency. A free agent like McClellan could get lost in a group that has Lewis, Jarret Johnson, Terrell Suggs, Dannell Ellerbe, Jameel McClain, Tavares Gooden and Antwan Barnes.

But McClellan has stood out. On a team that needs pass rushers, he has brought consistent pressure from the outside. Like Steele, McClellan could show up on some Ravens special teams in 2010.

"He's a tough, hard-nosed kid who has shown he can get after the quarterback," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said.

McLaughlin faces the toughest road to making the team of the three rookies. He played linebacker throughout his career at Boston College, but he rushed for more than 2,500 yards as a fullback in high school. Because of his lack of lateral movement, McLaughlin has no shot at playing linebacker in the NFL.

But as a fullback, he might be able to make the club with a lot of hard work.

"History shows that there are a lot of linebackers that have become good fullbacks," said Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' director of player personnel. "They are almost mirror opposites of each other. We knew his background and just thought he projected well to the fullback position. It's tough to find fullbacks, but our scouts identified him as a guy who might work out pretty well."

McLaughlin is hard-core but has shown surprisingly soft hands as a receiver. His major problem is that he still stands up too high, like a linebacker, a linebacker absorbing the blow instead of delivering it. A year on the practice squad might help his technique.

McLaughlin knows it's going to take hard work. His dad, Michael, and Uncle Joe both played in the NFL, and both were rookie free agents.

"They told me there was nothing like it, I just had to do it," McLaughlin said. "They told me how hard it is, how cutthroat it is. I don't know what my chances are. I don't even think about that because I have enough to think about just being here. Baltimore was the team that talked to me about being a fullback, and that was OK with me because it was my chance. This is my shot."

Steele agrees.

"It's all for real now," Steele said.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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