Ravens' rookie class led by Clayton

OWINGS MILLS – As the Baltimore Ravens' freshman class got acclimated to the NFL for the first time during Friday's rookie minicamp with the majority admitting a bad case of nerves, wide receiver Mark Clayton demonstrated the poise of a polished veteran.

The Ravens' first-round draft pick from Oklahoma caught the football with relative ease, spreading his fingers like an old pro to secure the spirals of rookie quarterback Derek Anderson.

Clayton tip-toed both feet inbounds, NFL style, on intermediate sideline routes. He never appeared to tire, sprinting from drill to drill.

The 5-foot-10, 195-pound All-American with the 4.41 speed over 40 yards never seemed to stop moving, or smiling in the No. 89 jersey vacated by departed first-round bust Travis Taylor.

Everything looked pretty smooth for Clayton, justifying the extensive praise he received from St. Louis Rams' All-Pro wideout Torry Holt during the NFL draft last weekend.

"We talk about the quickness, the great hands, the presence, the cuts in and out of the routes was everything as advertised," said Billick of the Sooners' all-time leader in receptions (221), receiving yards (3,241) and touchdown catches (31).

Along with the rest of the Ravens' draft picks – Oklahoma outside linebacker Dan Cody (second round), Syracuse offensive tackle Adam Terry (second round), North Carolina center Jason Brown (fourth round), Montana fullback Justin Green (fifth round), Oregon State's Anderson (sixth round), Texas Tech linebacker Mike Smith (seventh round) and 17 undrafted rookie free agents, it was a learning experience for Clayton and Co.
The rookies were fitted for helmets, assigned lockers, given a tour of the Ravens' $31 million training complex, given a scaled-down NFL playbook and put through their paces by the coaching staff.

For several rookies, their first NFL practice was accompanied by the tension of having finally reached the next level and wondering how they fit into the professional big-picture. Not to mention the presence of so many whirring cameras and tape recorders capturing their every movement.

"I think the first thing is to shake my nerves off," Terry said. "I'm being bombarded by cameras as well."

Finally getting back into a football mode after months of sprinting, lifting weights and the scrutiny of scouts and background checks was a major relief, though.

"You try to be a track star and a body builder at the scouting combine process," Terry said. "But to just actually get back on the field and get back in football shape instead of running a 40, that's going to be the best thing for me."

By the end of the rookies' first practice in Baltimore, a non-contact one conducted in helmets and shorts, many of the first-year players, not Clayton, Cody or Brown, were gasping for air.

"I'm going to learn this offense to the point where I'm lining up and flying around," Clayton said. "I want to go full speed right away and make big plays. This is about getting the lay of the land.

"We were the big men on campus, but now we're back at the bottom again. It's cool because it's a road I've traveled before. I started in high school at the bottom, and I didn't play until my senior year of high school."

Billick has noted that he essentially has an idea of who 50 of the 53 players will be on the final, veteran-laden roster.

"Good, energetic group, some excellent athletes," Billick said in his initial assessment.

However, it will take a lot to stand out when the veterans arrive and the team reconvenes for a May 16 passing camp.

Billick is hoping to discover the next undrafted gem after identifying B.J. Sams' return skills a year ago at a rookie minicamp. The minicamp concludes Saturday with two more practices.

"The main thing for them is to not limit themselves, to not think it's an uphill battle," Billick said. "I keep telling them, ‘Don't worry, when it comes time, I'll cut you. Don't cut yourself.'"

NOTES: The Ravens' undrafted free agent signees includes: former Maryland tight end Rob Abiamiri and wide receiver Curtis Williams along with Louisiana Tech offensive lineman Lester Brown, Houston defensive tackle Joe Clay, Albany State defensive end Walter Curry, North Carolina quarterback Darian Durant, Rutgers defensive lineman Gary Gibson, Colorado State defensive end Patrick Goodpaster, Houston offensive lineman Phil Hawkins, Rutgers safety Jarvis Johnson, Wisconsin long snapper Matt Katula, Oregon offensive lineman Robin Knebel, Minnesota kicker Rhys Lloyd, Morgan State wide receiver Tommy Manus, Louisiana-Monroe cornerback Cash Mouton, Illinois linebacker Matt Sinclair and Iowa State linebacker Tyson Smith. … Special teams coordinator Gary Zauner got around the Ravens' indoor practice field in a special motorized cart after undergoing recent knee surgery. "If that doesn't show up on the news tonight, I'm done, no more news conferences if that doesn't show up on TV tonight," Billick quipped.

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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