Taylor is Ravens' valuable insurance policy

OWINGS MILLS -- After catching a swing pass in full stride, the Baltimore Ravens' $3 million insurance policy dashed upfield as linebackers flailed for a piece of his jersey. Although Jamal Lewis remains the centerpiece of the Ravens' running game, there are no longer reservations about Chester Taylor being a viable alternative.

With Lewis serving a two-game suspension for violating the NFL substance abuse policy and missing two other starts with an ankle injury last season, Taylor gained a career-high 714 yards on 160 carries.

While Lewis served a four-month sentence in a Florida federal prison camp for a drug crime, the Ravens matched the Cleveland Browns' $3 million offer sheet on Taylor. To prevent the restricted free agent from joining an AFC North rival, the Ravens had to match a $1 million signing bonus and a $2 million base salary plus incentives.

"We had to step up to hold on to Chester for good reason," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, who canceled today's final day of the Ravens' mandatory minicamp. "We told you right there how much we value him, and those expectations match what we put out there for him."

With Lewis in an Atlanta halfway house for the next two months, Taylor is the current focal point of the running game.

Rewarded with a starter's salary after Baltimore had initially assigned him the lowest restricted tender of $656,000, the former sixth-round draft pick from Toledo is intent on proving worthy of their hefty investment.

"It shows how much confidence they have in me and that I am a big part of this offense," Taylor said. "It shows that my hard work has finally paid off and that I did everything I could every time I had a chance to help the team."

That's a fairly accurate summation of Taylor's track record, especially last season's career-high four starts.

Taylor rushed for a career-high 139 yards and a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals, including a career-high 47-yard run as he averaged six yards per carry.

Taylor picked up 104 yards on 25 carries against the New York Giants. He caught a career-high 30 passes.

"We put a lot on him last year and he came through with flying colors," running backs coach Matt Simon said. "We think he's a real viable talent and a great asset to the team.

"A lot of the things we do fit real well with his skills and talents. We're doing things to create space for him in the open field."

At 5-foot-11, 213 pounds, Taylor is somewhat undersized compared to most starting NFL running backs. His speed is deceptive, as is his strength.

Taylor is effective running inside with impressive leg drive, and routinely beats linebackers to the perimeter.

Last season was a breakthrough for Taylor, who scored two touchdowns and remained durable despite an increased workload.

"It was good to finally get a chance to show that I can hold up for the whole season," Taylor said. "I know Jamal is going to be the featured back, but I'm going to do the best I can whenever my name is called.

"I think I have a lot of versatility. I can run inside or outside. I can catch the ball and block. I do whatever I'm called upon to do."

NOTES: Cornerback Samari Rolle strained his hamstring covering a pass and left practice limping, but indicated it wasn't serious. "I'll be all right," Rolle said. … Billick stopped practice to berate the entire team after defensive linemen batted down three consecutive passes, and players trash-talked and didn't focus. "There's one ----ing voice out here, and that's mine," said Billick, whose offense struggled markedly again. Asked about his point of emphasis, Billick said: "I needed to make a point very loudly and in as animated a way as I could."… Nickel back Deion Sanders (toe) didn't practice along with offensive guard Edwin Mulitalo (arm), defensive end Tony Weaver (leg), tight end Todd Heap (ankle, shoulder) and running back Jamal Lewis (halfway house). Wide receiver Mark Clayton (hamstring) was limited along with fullback Alan Ricard (knee) and running back Musa Smith (leg). … Sanders said he's likely to keep wearing No. 37, although he considered switching to No. 38 to note his upcoming 38th birthday on Aug. 9. As for his progress from toe surgery, Sanders said: "I'm fine, I'm just really taking precautionary measures. There's no reason to rush it right now. This is minicamp. Who am I trying to impress? You? I think I'm way ahead of schedule" … Washington Wizards guard Juan Dixon attended practice as a guest of owner Steve Bisciotti. … The Ravens held a ‘Thank the Fans Day,' visiting 10 Baltimore area locations including Westminster, as part of the team's 10th anniversary celebration.

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