Ravens' undrafted rookies face long odds

OWINGS MILLS - Inside the Baltimore Ravens' locker room, a trio of rookies' names adorn the top of several stalls. They haven't earned permanent name plates yet, or their own dressing area. Between the retention of so many NFL sophomores who took advantage of last year's salary-cap purge and the addition of veteran free agents, it has become difficult to confidently forecast the odds of undrafted rookies making the final roster.

"The best thing I can tell them is to be confident in their abilities, to not let anyone tell them that it can't happen for them here," said free safety Will Demps, who started 10 games last season after going undrafted out of San Diego State. "I'm personal proof of what hard work and an opportunity can do for you."

Demps progressed from fourth-string to starter through a penchant for timely interceptions and sure open-field tackling.

With 17 rookies and first-year players on the team by the end of last season, the Ravens set a league record since the advent of a 53-man roster. The team's average age was 25.3.

The Ravens' roster currently stands at 87 players, including defensive end Michael McCrary who is likely to retire after June 1.

From that group, 26 rookies, including 15 undrafted players, are attempting to catch the eyes of a coaching staff that's searching for quality depth.

Going undrafted just tends to increase the climb up the depth-chart ladder.

"I was the top guy and now I'm at the bottom of the pile," said rookie linebacker Chris Brown, a free agent from Hawaii. "I don't care because I'm on the same team as Ray Lewis. I will work from the bottom and I'm not going to stop until I get to the top."

As usual, the ability to play special teams will be an important factor in determining who makes the team.

Receiver Hugh Smith, a free agent from South Florida clocked at 4.30 in the 40-yard dash, opened some eyes at minicamp with his acceleration and shiftiness. At 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds, he's a potential return specialist candidate.

"It was nerve-wracking at first, realizing that I'm really in the NFL," said Smith, who had 131 career receptions for 1,523 yards and 10 touchdowns at South Florida. "Once I get situated, I'm going to be ready to take off."

For free agent receiver Chisom Opara, unfamiliarity with the Ravens definitely isn't one of his obstacles. A Lutherville native who starred at Gilman in football, basketball and baseball before moving on to Princeton, the rookie grew up attending Ravens games. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Ivy Leaguer also visited the Ravens in the weeks leading up to the draft.

"This is a great experience for me because I grew up watching these guys play and I'm a fan of the entire program from the coaches to the players," said Opara, who caught 154 passes at Princeton for 2,198 yards and 10 touchdowns. "I was tailgating before the games and sitting up in the nosebleed section. For me, this is almost a dream come true."

If Opara or any of the other undrafted players makes the active roster or the five-man practice squad, it's going to require a combination of their skill and the Ravens' need at a particular position.

Even some draft picks aren't a sure thing after everyone except for seventh-round quarterback Wes Pate made the team last year.

"It's unbelievable to play with these all-stars like Ray Lewis, guys I watched in high school," Brown said. "It's a learning process. Even if things did or didn't work out, I'm just glad for the experience."

NOTE: Ravens coach Brian Billick will host the NFL Coaches Association clinic on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium.

The clinic is between 7:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. and is available to high school coaches for a fee of $20 per coach. Coaches can register by phone at 410-654-6262 or sign up at the stadium.

Aaron Wilson writes for The Carroll County Times.

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