- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

WESTMINSTER, Md. — On the first day of training camp, all 32 NFL teams announce they are indeed playoff caliber. The Baltimore Ravens actually might have a legitimate reason to make such a statement.

Last season, the Ravens managed to finish 7-9 with a roster that featured a lot of no-name and unproven talent. Forced to cut millions off its payroll because of the salary cap, Baltimore opened 2002 with 19 rookies and first-year players and was the league’s youngest team. Nevertheless, the Ravens were in the thick of the AFC playoff race until the last week of the season.

After overachieving last season, the organization is understandably excited about this year’s team. With a solid nucleus returning and the acquisition of key free agents, the Ravens think they have the talent to return to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus.

“What we learned about ourselves and each other last year accelerates that process,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “We expect to be a playoff team. Those are the expectations based on what we did last year under an incredible set of circumstances and I know these guys are ready for that challenge.”

After yesterday’s first training camp practice at McDaniel College, Billick was impressed with the defense, but didn’t have kind words for the offense. What Billick really liked, however, was watching five-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis taking some hits with his surgically repaired left shoulder.

Lewis is the heart and soul of the Ravens. He is arguably the most dominant defensive player in the game today. When Baltimore switched to a 3-4 defense last year, Lewis, 27, was having the best season of his career — averaging 17 tackles a game — until he was sidelined by a separated shoulder.

Lewis played in five games last season and had surgery Dec.10. With Lewis healthy, the Ravens’ defense is again expected to be one of the NFL’s most dominant units. Baltimore went 5-6 without him in the lineup.

“It’s always rough to sit out,” Lewis said. “At the same time it was very refreshing because for 17 years of my life, I never took a break during the season. If you’re taking my title [for leading the NFL in tackles with 196 in 2001] because I was hurt last year, that’s one thing, but if you’re going to take my title when I’m healthy, come earn it.”

Without Lewis, the Ravens were second in the league against the run last season, allowing 3.7 yards a rush. The return of Lewis bolsters an outstanding corps of outside linebacker Peter Boulware, a three-time Pro Bowl player; left inside linebacker Ed Hartwell; and either Cornell Brown or rookie Terrell Suggs, the 10th overall pick in April’s NFL Draft, as the other outside linebacker.

Free agency delivered the Ravens another solid cornerback to complement Chris McAlister. Nine-year veteran Corey Fuller steps into Gary Baxter’s right cornerback spot. The Ravens have moved the 6-foot-2 Baxter to safety. Baxter, who is not regarded as a blanket cover guy, switches to a position where he can take advantage of his aggressive, physical tackling.

The Ravens defense has more depth up front now that defensive end Marques Douglas, a Howard product, returns from a knee injury that sidelined him for 11 games last season. Kelly Gregg and second-year man Maake Kemoeatu (6-5, 312 pounds) will vie for the Ravens’ nose tackle job, while Douglas, Anthony Weaver and special teams standout Adalius Thomas man the ends.

If Brown starts over Suggs at outside linebacker, the Ravens return 10 of their 11 starters from last season’s team.

“We are all out for one thing,” Lewis said. “On the defensive side of the ball, we all just want to dominate every time we step onto the field. So, it’s just fun for us now.”

The biggest upgrade the Ravens made in the offseason is on the offensive side of the ball where three veteran free agents — wide receivers Frank Sanders, Marcus Robinson, and right tackle Orlando Brown — are expected to make an impact.

The Ravens significantly upgraded their receiving corps with Sanders and Robinson. Billick’s dream of going vertical with his West Coast offense might become reality. Both Sanders (6-2, 207) and Robinson (6-3, 215) are big targets, a dimension the Ravens never have had under Billick.

Sanders, who has averaged 62 receptions his first eight seasons, comes to the Ravens from the Arizona Cardinals. Sanders is a possession-type receiver with great route-running ability.

“Listening to everyone talk about the offense as a whole and what we weren’t able to do, it just doesn’t seem like that’s speaking from the talent we have here and I’m glad to be a part of it,” Sanders said. “We’ve got a great running back [Jamal Lewis], some good quarterbacks [Chris Redman and rookie Kyle Boller], a good tight end [Todd Heap] and a good system. Me coming and adding a part will be something special.”

For now, Billick’s offense is in the hands of fifth-year quarterback Redman. Redman, who is coming off back surgery, gives the Ravens the best chance to win because he knows Billick’s intricate passing scheme. Now that Redman has competent wideouts to go with All-Pro tight end Todd Heap, the Ravens’ passing game should rise from the league’s 27th-rated attack.

The 6-3 Redman started the first six games last season, completing 53.3 percent of his passes for 1,034 yards and seven touchdowns before being sidelined with his back injury. Boller is a holdout, making it more certain that Redman will be the Ravens’ quarterback.

If running back Jamal Lewis can duplicate his 1,327 rushing yards from last season, that will open up the Ravens’ passing game even more.

“The new additions bring some height, big plays and maturity,” Redman said. “The talent is here, it is just a matter of putting it all together.”

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