Ravens' Figurs has speed to burn

OWINGS MILLS -- Yamon Figurs has grand designs on eclipsing Chicago Bears return man extraordinaire Devin Hester. Although the Baltimore Ravens rookie return specialist and reserve wide receiver makes no bold guarantees about breaking Hester's NFL record with seven kicks returned for touchdowns as a rookie, he's unaccustomed to taking a back seat to his fellow Florida native.

As a senior at Westwood High School in Ft. Pierce, Fla., Figurs dusted Hester twice in the 2001 regional and state track and field championships. The fastest rookie in the NFL ran an 11.01 in the 100 meters under blustery conditions to finish second overall in the Florida state Class 2A meet.

"That was a long time ago, back in my senior year when I beat Hester at the state championships," Figurs recalled. "I beat him by a pretty good distance. It was kind of close at regionals."

In four preseason games, Figurs continually displayed his speed while working in tandem with incumbent return specialist B.J. Sams.

He averaged 31.6 yards per kickoff return to rank 12th in the NFL, including a long of 54 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles and a 36-yard effort in a loss to the Washington Redskins. Until the Ravens' preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons, where he returned one kickoff for 11 yards, Figurs' shortest return in August was 28 yards.

Figurs is far from satisfied, though.

Especially since he hasn't taken a kick all the way back, which is Hester's specialty, including a Super Bowl record 92-yard kickoff jaunt.

"He set the records, so you always have to chase that," Figurs said. "That's the standard. But, like people say, records are made to be broken." As a punt returner, Figurs hasn't been nearly as successful initially. He still needs to work on catching punts with his hands instead of cradling the football against his body.

During the preseason, he averaged 6.8 yards with five fair catches and a long return of 18 yards. "It's all coming together," Figurs said. "I'm starting to relax out there. I'm getting back to the norm with everything opening up and just seeing the holes.

"Still, I know I can do better. I haven't taken one to the house yet. I just want to score that first touchdown. That will be a special thing." Baltimore drafted Figurs in the third round out of Kansas State to inject speed into their return game.

As a senior, he registered a conference-long 81-yard punt return for a touchdown against Illinois State. His 52-yard punt return set up a score in an upset victory over the Texas Longhorns.

Plus, the All Big-12 Conference selection caught 28 passes for 418 yards and ranked fifth in the country in punt returns with a 14.7 average and two touchdowns. He capped his collegiate career with a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown against Rutgers in the Texas Bowl.

As the fastest player at the NFL scouting combine with a blistering 4.29 clocking in the 40-yard dash, Figurs has speed to burn. However, he still needs to refine his overall game and make strides as a receiver, where he's considered a raw developmental prospect.

"His speed is eye-popping, and that's what we drafted him for," Ravens coach Brian Billick said of Figurs, who returned four punts for 23 yards against Atlanta with two fair catches. "We'll continue to see if he can expand on that."

Figurs has yet to catch his first pass in a game. The Ravens are expected to primarily highlight Figurs' skills on kickoffs and allow Sams to concentrate on punt returns.

With Sams entering the final year of his contract and Figurs signed to a three-year, $1.694 million contract that included a $579,000 signing bonus, the future of the Ravens' return game is already secured.

Figurs isn't looking that far ahead. He just wants to contribute immediately and catch up with his old high school rival, Hester.

"They brought me here to return kicks and be a threat at receiver, and I'm going to do what I came to do and make the team better," Figurs said. "It's a nice tandem with B.J., and he's teaching me a lot. I just need to keep improving at everything I do and be as good as possible in all phases of the game. I'm excited about how everything is going."

NOTES: The Ravens signed seven players to their practice squad, including defensive tackles Anthony Bryant (Alabama) and Atiyyah Ellison (Missouri), cornerback Willie Gaston (Houston), offensive tackle Mike Kracalik (San Diego State), offensive guard Ikechuku Ndukwe (Northwestern), running back Cory Ross (Nebraska) and wide receiver Matt Willis (UCLA). Under league rules, the defending AFC North champions are allowed to add one more player to the practice squad. ... The Ravens return to practice today after being given the weekend off.

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

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