Sapp returns to familiar ground

WESTMINSTER -- The irony and déjà vu surrounding his unanticipated reunion with the Baltimore Ravens haven't escaped the notice of Gerome Sapp. In a controversial move two seasons ago that spawned internal debate in the organization, Sapp was released from the Ravens in a case often labeled as office politics.

Now, he's starting at safety alongside former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Ed Reed after being reacquired from the Indianapolis Colts this summer for a conditional draft pick.

"I am surprised and the whole situation is ironic," said Sapp, whom Baltimore drafted in the sixth round in 2003 out of Notre Dame. "I know when I left a lot of people were telling me you never know, you may be back. That was the farthest thing from my mind.

"These past few years I've grown and developed personally and as a player. So, it's ironic that I'm back now and developed like I am and running with the No. 1 defense."

Sapp related that the team initially was going to cut veteran cornerback Corey Fuller, but Fuller -- a close friend of influential middle linebacker Ray Lewis -- talked his way out of being released with a reminder of how he helped persuade Deion Sanders to join the Ravens.

"It was a tough situation back then, but we know Gerome is a heck of a football player," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "He's a smart kid. He's tough. He'll tackle and he's pretty dependable. Those are pretty good attributes to have."

Since leaving Baltimore, Sapp emerged as a special-teams captain for the Colts while Fuller played sparingly for the remainder of the 2004 campaign in what proved to be his final season in the NFL.

Sapp immediately becomes the most experienced free safety on the Ravens' roster, although he has just two starts in the Colts' final two regular-season games last year.

"Being in Indy taught me how to compete," Sapp said. "I think that's what brought me back here."

Regardless of the past, Sapp has the initial edge for the starting job over fifth-round draft pick Dawan Landry and B.J. Ward. Ryan stressed that it's going to be an open competition that's far from decided.

"I would be naïve to believe that all the safeties aren't ready to take over the job because it's definitely open," Sapp said. "The other safeties are like sharks in the water, and they should be. What I have to basically do is make the coaches and my teammates comfortable with me playing the position, and I think I'm on my way to doing that."

Meanwhile, Sapp has a great deal of familiarity with Reed because of their background together in 2003. Reed, though, has been to two Pro Bowls and has established NFL credentials whereas Sapp has something to prove.

"I remember a lot of conversations Ed and I had when I was a rookie," Sapp said. "Obviously, Ed is the commander of the secondary in terms of the safeties so basically what he says goes. I still have a reference of where he's coming from and we're working well together."

Last season, Sapp registered 28 tackles on special teams and another 16 stops on defense.

At 6-foot-1, 216 pounds, Sapp represents a potential enforcing presence in the middle of the field along with the intelligence of a business major who interned at Legg-Mason and American Express.

Sapp is vying to fill the defensive vacancy created when Will Demps signed a five-year, $12 million contract with the New York Giants. The Ravens made no attempt to retain Demps.

"Will was a good player for us, but you can't keep everybody," Ryan said. "We've got to move on and we're not focused on Will Demps anymore. We're focused on the guys we have."

One way Sapp has distinguished himself is with his intensity and penchant for running out every play.

"There's no one on this team that every play is hustling more than Gerome Sapp," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

Sapp already is rediscovering an old comfort zone with Reed. The question remains: How quickly will he adjust to an altered defense?

"It's definitely like old times, but it's different, too," Reed said. "He's a different Sapp and we're running different schemes. He's definitely making an impact.

"That's what you expect out of a Notre Dame guy. Basically, he's a tough guy who can run, knows what he's supposed to do and he's eager to learn."

A restricted free agent, Sapp is playing under a one-year tender worth $721,600 and will be an unrestricted free agent following this season.

For Sapp to remain the starter he'll need to do better than he did Thursday morning when tight end Todd Heap posted him up for an easy touchdown.

Sapp is cognizant of the fact that in a secondary populated by three former Pro Bowl selections with Reed, Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle he's going to be regarded as the weak link. His territory on the field might become a popular destination for quarterbacks until he demonstrates that he's not an easy mark.

"I'm the new guy, so they're probably coming after me first," Sapp said. "If they want to come at me, hey that's what I get paid for. I like to compete."

Aaron Wilson writes for Ravens Insider and the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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