Billick on Ravens: 'Optimism is warranted'

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) -A year ago, the Baltimore Ravens entered training camp with plenty of questions and only a half-dozen victories to build upon.

Coming off a 6-10 season, the Ravens wondered how quickly their new quarterback, Steve McNair, could adjust to operating coach Brian Billick's complex offense. They had no idea who to start at free safety, and star middle linebacker Ray Lewis was returning from a serious hamstring injury. The Ravens also worried about relying heavily on rookies at several key positions, including punter, defensive tackle, wide receiver and tight end.

"We had five or six critical concerns," Billick recalled.

Everything ultimately fell into place, and Baltimore went 13-3 in the regular season before losing to Indianapolis in the playoffs.

Despite that deflating defeat - or maybe because of it - when the Ravens gather Monday morning for the first practice of training camp, they will carry an attitude befitting a team coming off the best record in franchise history.

"The expectations that our fans have for us, the expectations the players have for themselves, is clearly different. You think of yourself in a different way," Billick said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Last year at this time, we had a lot of confidence in our ability, a lot of confidence in what we were able to do. But we had a lot to prove.

"A year removed, we're still as confident. We still have a lot to prove. But we feel like, with what we were able to return from that 13-3 team, that optimism is warranted."

During the offseason the Ravens lost linebacker Adalius Thomas, running back Jamal Lewis, offensive tackle Tony Pashos, fullback Ovie Mughelli and guard Edwin Mulitalo. But the defense has 10 of 11 starters back and all four of its top reserves. The offense features a refined McNair, running back Willie McGahee and an offensive line Billick contends "has a lot more depth and a lot more talent than probably at any time since I've been here."

In the days leading up to the season opener at Cincinnati on Sept. 10, the Ravens will seek to line up the depth chart and determine how much they can expect from a rookie class headed by guard Ben Grubbs.

But it's not like last July, when Billick wondered if rookie punter Sam Koch could cope with the pressure of kicking in the NFL, or if No. 1 draft pick Haloti Ngata could contribute on the defensive line, or if fifth-rounder Quinn Sypniewski would be an ample backup to tight end Todd Heap.

There was also the significant question of whether Ray Lewis could return to form. Lewis played in only six games in 2005, but last year he led the team in tackles and earned an eighth invitation to the Pro Bowl. Now, he says he's feeling better than ever after a revamped offseason regimen that included plenty of cardiovascular exercise and much-needed rest.

"There's always concerns, but right now going into camp, I don't know that there's that one singular issue that we don't feel good about across the board," Billick said. "There's a lot of work to be done, and we're counting on our players to be even better than they were last year. But there's a world of difference sitting here right now from a year ago."

General manager Ozzie Newsome said, "I feel the same way. The taste in our mouths after the loss to Indianapolis (provided) the impetus for this season."

Newsome worked hard this spring to make sure the Ravens wouldn't suffer from the loss of Thomas and Jamal Lewis. He re-signed Jarret Johnson to replace Thomas and worked a trade to get McGahee, who is much more versatile than the lumbering Lewis.

One of the main objectives of this camp will be to get McGahee acclimated to running in a new system behind an unfamiliar offensive line. There's also the matter of coming up with a third-string quarterback: Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith vs. Drew Olson, who played on the practice squad last year and enjoyed an exceptional season in NFL Europa.

"That will be an interesting battle," Billick said. "There will be plenty of practice opportunities, but really, you can only learn about someone in a game atmosphere. So we're going to try to get them as much playing time as we can."

That won't be a problem. Now that McNair is comfortable operating Billick's offense, it's no longer necessary for him to see extensive action on the practice field or in exhibition games.

"We talked last year about how one of my biggest concerns was how much Steve would have to do to get integrated into the system," Billick said. "In this training camp, Steve can take a more conventional approach in terms of the amount of reps he has to take."

Demetrius Williams, who emerged as the No. 3 receiver as a rookie last year, will be tested by two competitors desperate to make an impression.

"It's going to be a pivotal year for Clarence Moore and Devard Darling. They're at kind of the make-or-break point of their careers," Billick said. "They're going to establish themselves in that role - or not."

But for the team as a whole, Camp Billick should be worry free.

"We're going in with only three safeties. We need to get a fourth. We also need to get a legitimate kickoff guy," Newsome said. "Those are the only two hiccups."

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