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Baltimore buzz

Ravens' top picks have similar backgrounds

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Posted: Monday April 17, 2000 08:58 AM

  Jamal Lewis Jamal Lewis gained 1,364 yards in 1997 but just 816 yards last season after missing 1998 with an injury. Elsa Hasch/Allsport

By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- In many ways, their stories mirror one another's, right down to the details of their draft-day experience.

Running back Jamal Lewis and receiver Travis Taylor arrived at the Baltimore Ravens team complex Sunday afternoon with much in common.

Coming out of Southeastern Conference schools that each won a national championship during their tenure, Lewis and Taylor are both skill position players entering the NFL after their junior seasons, with a top 10 draft billing and some lingering questions about old injuries.

And now these two old SEC rivals have another common bond: Their arrival is among the moves expected to lift the Ravens franchise to its first winning season and playoff berth since 1994, when the team was in its second-to-last season in Cleveland.

"These two kids between them have lost, what, eight games in three years or something?" asked Ravens head coach Brian Billick, mentioning the track records of Lewis with Tennessee and Taylor with Florida. "They have a mindset that says this is the way it's supposed to be and they're not going to back down from anybody.

"They have a confidence. People in the SEC, these kids, rightly, wrongly, or whatever your view is, they say [the SEC] is just a step below the NFL. That this is not that big a jump. They'll learn, but they're not wholly wrong either. And that's a good mindset to have."

In making their jump, Lewis and Taylor are thought ready to help the Ravens make the jump from 8-8 mediocrity to the upper third of the NFL. Much the same way AFC Central Division rival Tennessee did last season, going from three consecutive 8-8 finishes to 13-3 and a surprise Super Bowl berth.

With Lewis and Taylor penciled in as starters for Baltimore, the Ravens in 2000 should boast a lineup that includes nine first-round draft picks. But just one other offensive starter is in that group -- left tackle Jonathan Ogden. The other six first-rounders are on Baltimore's impressive No. 2-ranked defense: middle linebacker Ray Lewis, cornerbacks Duane Starks and Chris McAlister, free safety Rod Woodson, strongside linebacker Peter Boulware, and the newly signed defensive tackle Sam Adams.

Lewis, the fifth overall pick and first running back chosen, provides the Ravens with a blend of speed and power and fills the void left when Baltimore lost its leading ground gainer, Errict Rhett, to Cleveland in free agency. Taylor, who went 10th overall, is the potential No. 1 receiver that the woefully impotent Ravens offense has lacked in recent years.

Travis Taylor Travis Taylor missed two games last season, but still finished with 34 receptions for 463 yards and six touchdowns. Andy Lyons/Allsport  

"Coming in as the 5th and 10th picks, there's a lot expected out of us," Lewis said. "And we're ready to take on those responsibilities and help this team win games."

Asked about their similar backgrounds and their roads to Baltimore, both Lewis and Taylor returned to the theme of the SEC as training ground for the NFL.

"The SEC is a great conference to play in," Lewis said. "You've got speed, and it's like a lower caliber of the NFL-type environment. The defensive players are fast and big and a lot goes on on the field in the SEC. There's just a lot of great talent."

Though the two new Ravens knew of each other -- the Gators and Vols have dominated the SEC in the past decade -- they had not spent any significant time together until Sunday.

"In Jamal's case, he's a great running back," Taylor said. "I've seen him do things in Tennessee, man, it's a sight to see. I think both of us have the opportunity to come in here and contribute to the team. I think that's what they're looking for us to do this year."

Lewis, said Billick, has a tendency to run over rather than around defensive backs, choosing to rely on his strength over his speed.

"Sometimes you've got to gain a little respect out there," Lewis said, smiling.

While both players came out of pro-style offenses and will be counted on early and often for the Ravens, they share at least one of the same question marks. Lewis tore a ligament in his right knee in 1998, costing him all but four games of his sophomore season. His production has never matched his pre-injury levels -- he gained 1,364 yards as a freshman in 1997 and just 816 yards last season -- and some believe his elusiveness has been diminished.

Taylor was hampered by a high ankle sprain in 1999, missing two games. He finished with 34 receptions for 463 yards and six touchdowns, and finished strong with game MVP honors in a Florida Citrus Bowl victory over Michigan State (11 catches for 156 yards and three touchdowns). The 6-foot, 199-pound Taylor's game is speed (4.46) combined with the toughness to run over the middle and make athletic catches.

While both were cleared medically by the Ravens' team doctors in pre-draft visits to Baltimore, Lewis took no chances in regards to his health, spending the last 10 weeks working out in Boca Raton, Fla., at the training gym of Minnesota Vikings receiver Cris Carter. Both Carter, who owns and operates Cris Carter's Fast Program, and Lewis are clients of agent Mitch Frankel. Carter's training regimen is credited with helping Vikings receiver Randy Moss launch his spectacular rookie season of 1998.

"It's just a strenuous program," Lewis said. "You've got to be dedicated and disciplined if you want to go in and make some progress. I was in the best shape of my life coming out of that program. They focus on everything that you really need in the game of football."

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