Sams trying to hold off Figurs

OWINGS MILLS -- There were no signs of pain on B.J. Sams' smiling face as he scampered across the Baltimore Ravens' practice field this spring. The metal hardware (a plate and two screws) stabilizing his surgically-repaired right ankle didn't seem to hamper his movement, or his enthusiasm.

Sams burst past defenders, high-stepping into the open field with apparently the same fluidity he possessed before a broken bone that held him out of the final month of the regular season and a playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

No longer was the diminutive return specialist saddled with a limp, or a driving under the influence charge he was acquitted of this spring.

"I feel like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulders," said Sams in a reference to a pivotal courtroom victory that kept him out of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's cross-hairs. "I'm feeling good about everything. Yes, I've lost a little bit of feeling in my leg because of the injury, but I've still got my speed."

The only remaining obstacle in Sams' path is rookie wide receiver Yamon Figurs whose third-round draft status and pure speed makes him a formidable competitor.

Figurs returned two punts for touchdowns and one kickoff for a score at Kansas State. He was clocked at a scorching 4.29 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine last winter, the fastest time of any incoming prospect.

"Certain guys are fast and certain guys play fast," director of college scouting Eric DeCosta said when Baltimore drafted Figurs 74th overall. "When you watch him on tape, you see an unbelievable speed and acceleration."

For now, it's Sams' job as he heads into the final year of his contract. How long he'll retain the job, though, depends on what happens as training camp commences at McDaniel College.

"B.J. is still our guy," special teams coordinator Frank Gansz said. "He's made a lot of big plays for this football team. Nobody has worked harder than B.J., and his teammates appreciate him.

"I love this young kid [Figurs], and he's got a lot of tools. It's a tough league, but he's got a look about him. He's a worker and I like that."

Sams ranked sixth in the NFL in punt returns and eighth in kickoff returns prior to breaking his ankle in late November against the Cincinnati Bengals. He averaged 10.6 yards per punt return with one 65-yard return, averaging 25.7 yards per kickoff with a long return of 72 yards.

If he's successful in holding off Figurs' challenge, it won't be the first time Sams has beaten the odds. He beat out draft pick Derek Abney for the starting job as an undrafted rookie.
"Every year, I'm competing for a job," Sams said. "I'm never comfortable. This year, they drafted someone. Therefore, the stakes are higher. I need to grind it out and do even better."

Outperforming Figurs could prove to be a difficult task.

The Florida native averaged 14.7 yards per punt return last season. As a junior, he averaged 24.7 yards per kickoff, including a 98-yard return for a touchdown against Against a University of Texas secondary that featured first-round draft picks Aaron Ross and Michael Griffin, Figurs caught two touchdowns and posted a career-high 123 receiving yards. He capped his collegiate career in the Texas Bowl with a 76-yard punt return against Rutgers.

"I want to show the coaches that I'm going to work hard and do whatever it takes to play right away," Figurs said. "I have a passion for doing it. It's what can separate you from winning and losing."

Figurs' sprinting ability is well-documented. He finished second in the 100 meters during the Florida state track meet in high school.

"Speed runs in my family," he said. "I have a brother that's fast, too. When I was younger, I used to race my dad and I could never beat him. By the ninth grade, though, I started beating him."

This time, Figurs is entered in a different kind of race. One that pits him against an experienced return man who has started for Baltimore since 2004 when he set a single-season franchise record with 1,826 total return yards.

Could there be room for both Sams and Figurs?

"I don't want to comment on that because that's not for me to comment on," Gansz said. "It's a long way to go before we play Cincinnati. I think this organization has always made great decisions on personnel, and I have faith in that."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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