Veteran-laden Ravens set to report

OWINGS MILLS -- Former Baltimore Ravens majority owner Art Modell delivered a telling joke two years ago about needing a program to identify many of his football players.

The harsh realities of the NFL salary cap and a "scorched-earth" approach to parting with several expensive veterans created the youngest team in the league.

As players report for training camp this afternoon in Westminster, the Ravens are the defending AFC North champions. The football team has evolved into a veteran-laden outfit led by eight returning Pro Bowl selections, including reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Ray Lewis and NFL Offensive Player of the Year Jamal Lewis.

Heading into their first season under new majority owner Steve Bisciotti, the Ravens are the top-ranked team in the NFL in terms of continuity, returning every starter except for wide receiver Marcus Robinson.

"We got a little ahead of the curve last year in winning the division," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, who sports a 47-33 win-loss record entering his sixth season in Baltimore. "All of those players are homegrown, which is the way you would like to build.

"There's a lot of energy. I can feel it around town in terms of anticipation and expectations, probably as much or more as the 2001 season after the Super Bowl."

The Ravens' primary goal after a 10-6 campaign was to upgrade their passing game. The team ranked last in passing in the league last season and first in rushing behind Jamal Lewis' 2,066 yards.

Following a nullified trade for All-Pro wide receiver Terrell Owens, the Ravens acquired former Cleveland Browns starter Kevin Johnson for a fourth-round draft pick and selected rookie wideout Devard Darling in the third round. Former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel was hired as a senior consultant to tutor second-year quarterback Kyle Boller on his mechanics and fundamentals. Boller was the second-lowest ranked passer (62.4) in the league last season, going 5-4 as a rookie starter.

The Ravens aren't inclined toward throwing the football significantly more, but are looking to improve their efficiency.

"We're still a running team with a dominant defense," Billick said.

Baltimore is also banking on experience paying dividends as the team embarks on a first-place schedule that includes games against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Kansas City Chiefs and familiar AFC North rivals. "Each camp has a different set of priorities based on who and what you are," Billick said. "This team has to take ownership of its destiny and fate from the very first day of training camp."

The Ravens have experienced a rocky off-season. Jamal Lewis was indicted on federal drug conspiracy charges, and might have to go to trial in Atlanta during the season. Defensive back Corey Fuller has an Aug. 23 court date in Tallahassee, Fla., for felony gambling and firearm charges.

In addition to his grandmother dying this winter, Fuller exchanged gunfire with a masked intruder at his home prior to his arrest. No one was injured.

Plus, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, last year's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, has a Sept. 9 court date in Arizona for two counts of felony aggravated assault.

"We have had to deal with a lot," Billick said. "We have dealt with criminal charges. We have dealt with personal losses. We have been through an ownership change.

"We have been through the proverbial quarterback change that can devastate a club. We have lost our best player, Ray Lewis and Jamal Lewis, at pivotal times and survived."

Four years ago, murder charges filed against Ray Lewis in Atlanta were dropped prior to the season and the Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl.

"There's a certain value in our history, of being able to say, 'This is unfortunate, but we can survive this,'" Billick said. "There's a cumulative experience that I'm counting on." NOTES: Billick reiterated that he doesn't expect Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister, the team's franchise player for the second consecutive year, to report today. McAlister, 27, hasn't signed his one-year $7.1 million tender that would require him to report or face a fine. Rookie wide receiver Clarence Moore, a sixth-round draft pick, remained unsigned as of Wednesday evening. Both sides were in contact Wednesday, and it's probable that a deal will be completed soon. …

Defensive end Dwan Edwards, a second-round pick, reportedly received a five-year contract worth $3.545 million that includes a $1.15 million signing bonus.

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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