Ravens, Modell primed for season

Inside his stadium office, owner Art Modell leaned forward in his chair and offered a glowing summation of this edition of the Baltimore Ravens. Modell was forced to watch as several elements of a Super Bowl champion were dismantled prior to last season because of salary-cap issues and age. Now, Modell considers his football team rebuilt as players report to training camp Sunday in Westminster for his 43rd and last season as majority owner.

"I'm a pretty good judge of talent," Modell said. "I've been around a long time and this team is better than the one that won the Super Bowl. We've got a winner."

After a 7-9 campaign that included four losses by a combined total of nine points, the Ravens gathering at McDaniel College may wear the look of a contender again.

Especially if All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis returns to form after his season ended prematurely last year with a shoulder injury. The Ravens went 5-6 during Lewis' absence and finished third in the AFC North.

"This is a talented club, we have depth and athleticism across the board, but it is very young," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "The Super Bowl team clearly had excellent athletes who were maybe past their physical prime, but had that veteran experience.

"Our defense, in particular, was one that although physically gifted what separated them maybe for all-time was the ability to combine that experience into almost a single thought. Certainly, everyone will be working just a little bit harder knowing how much this season means to Art."

Baltimore returns virtually every starter listed in the opening lineup from a year ago with the exceptions of receiver Brandon Stokley and defensive end Michael McCrary. Plus, the Ravens brought in a diverse influx of talent consisting of receivers Frank Sanders and Marcus Robinson, savvy cornerback Corey Fuller and intimidating offensive tackle Orlando Brown along with first-round picks in outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and quarterback Kyle Boller.

"The Ravens have recovered really well from the salary cap problems they had," said New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, whose team lost to Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV. "They've got a really good football team again. They should be tough."

Regardless of whether the Ravens are able to capitalize on their investments and recapture their old chemistry, a demanding schedule follows a camp to be defined by competitions.

At quarterback, incumbent Chris Redman is attempting to fight off the challenge of Boller after undergoing back surgery. Redman was impressive in minicamps, demonstrating improved velocity and mobility. Yet, Boller has superior arm strength and is nearly as fast as many NFL running backs.

Depending upon whether Boller is a contract holdout, this promises to be a closely-contested and watched battle.

"You all need to be careful about reacting to who starts what games and who plays so many reps because each game has a different personality," Billick said. "We're going to try to keep that equitable, but that's hard to do. Then, we'll sort out what we think is our best chance to win with."

With running back Jamal Lewis two years removed from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap, Billick is banking on an offensive improvement. Last year, the Ravens ranked 26th overall in total offense.

"We have a chance to make an impact," Billick said.

Casey Rabach is capable of playing all three positions along the interior offensive line after starting five games last year, but his best chance for a regular job is to beat out Bennie Anderson at right guard. Anderson's conditioning, which has lapsed at times over his playing weight of 340 pounds, is a factor in this decision.

"Casey is frustrated to an extent because he wants to start and he will have a chance to compete with Bennie," offensive line coach Jim Colletto said. "Casey's flexibility is his greatest asset. Bennie's a good football player, too. We'll have a lot of options at several spots whoever starts."

Robinson and Sanders will grapple for catches along with designated go-to receiver Travis Taylor. Randy Hymes, Ron Johnson and Javin Hunter are contending for fourth and fifth receiver roles. Rookie Trent Smith is pushing John Jones to be the third tight end.

Meanwhile, the defense slipped to 22nd overall last year, but Billick anticipates defensive coordinator Mike Nolan being able to employ a more aggressive approach this fall.

"When Ray got hurt, Mike did a magnificent job with the circumstances that were thrown at him," Billick said. "This group has a great deal of potential with the return of a Ray Lewis and what Terrell Suggs' presence could do for Peter Boulware."

Adalius Thomas and Marques Douglas are the top candidates at right end on an undersized defensive line where the rotation behind nose guard Kelly Gregg and left end Tony Weaver has yet to be determined.

Billick said Gary Baxter will play free safety next to Ed Reed, for now, with Fuller starting at corner opposite Chris McAlister. Meanwhile, the health of cornerback Tom Knight remains an issue as he has a history of nagging hamstring injuries.

"He could be pivotal as our third corner," Billick said.

Despite Modell's optimism, general manager Ozzie Newsome is reserving judgment.

"We have our work cut out for us, but we have the right people here to be a good football team," Newsome said. "I don't know how good Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh are going to be, but I know we are much better than we were a year ago."

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