The Byrne Identity: Who Will Be Ravens' Next Great RFA?



As the Ravens' coaches and scouts dissect the video from Thursday night's game in Philadelphia, is there a rookie free agent (RFA) or lower-round draft choice who is leaping out, indicating that he might be the next Jameel McClain, Bart Scott, Priest Holmes or Chris Carr? This quartet entered the NFL as non-drafted free agents. Or, is there a Matt Birk or Adalius Thomas, former sixth-round draft picks who made it big?

Could it be wide receiver LaQuan Williams, the RFA from the University of Maryland and Poly High School? Or quarterback Tyrod Taylor, the Ravens' sixth-round choice this year? We'll find out in these preseason games. That's where these guys make their mark.

Some fans yawn when these players, fighting for their professional lives, enter the preseason game with all the passion and energy they can bring. The Ozzie Newsomes and John Harbaughs, however, are watching intensely.

I talked to a few established Ravens about their memories from their first preseason games. These guys – Matt Birk, Chris Carr, Jameel McClain and Jarret Johnson – were longer shots to make an NFL team, let alone become big-time players.

The six-time Pro Bowler entered the NFL as a sixth-round pick for the Vikings in 1998.

"I remember it well. We played at New England at the old stadium in Foxborough. My thought process was to find a way to stand out. I was drafted by a team that had 4 Pro Bowl (offensive) linemen, Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Randall Cunningham, who became the league's MVP that season.

"I knew I was not a finished product, but I knew 32 teams would be watching me, and I was going to show that I could hit and compete at a high level. I wanted to separate myself, but it didn't feel like my feet were hitting the ground. I kept thinking the other guys looked so good, and no matter what I said to myself, I had serious doubts that I belonged.

"It wasn't easy. I was trying to play hard and fast, but I was also trying to focus on my technique and assignments. Really, it's never easy to play. So, that hasn't changed.

"By the end of the game, I was exhausted. One other thing I do remember is that one of my teammates at Harvard (safety Jeff Compass) was on the Patriots' kickoff team, and I was really trying to light him up so I'd have a memory we could laugh about from what I thought would be a short time in the NFL."

CHRIS CARRThe seventh-year corner was signed by the Raiders as a rookie free agent in 2005.

"Not being drafted hurt. It was alarming. It was the first time in my life that I was being told I wasn't good enough. But, I was good enough. That's what I believed. I signed when the Raiders' starting corners were Nnamdi Asomugha and Charles Woodson, and they had drafted Fabian Washington and Stanford Routt in the first and second rounds… By the third practice, I knew I could make the team despite the fact that they gave me [jersey] No. 1. They give numbers like that to guys who they think won't make the team.

"Our first preseason game was at the 49ers, the team I followed as a kid. It was kind of weird seeing those guys up close in the pre-game. My mind was that I had to show everyone I could play in the NFL. I thought, 'If I could play well tonight, I'd make it.'

"I kept talking to myself in the game: 'Keep playing. You've done this before.' I made some plays. I had an interception and a 40-yard punt return. After the game, Coach [Norv] Turner indicated that if I kept it up, I'd be on the team. Funny, it chokes me up thinking about that, but I don't remember choking up then."

JAMEEL McCLAINThe Ravens' starting inside linebacker joined Baltimore as a rookie free agent in 2008.

"I don't remember my first preseason game as far as who we played and where it was played. My focus was not about who or where we were playing. I was focused on just making plays. One of my coaches told me a long time ago 'to find the ball and get there.'

"That's what I was thinking about for the first game: find the ball, find the ball. I was going to try and touch the ball on every play. Funny, what I do remember is that Ray Lewis came up to me and told me to 'Go out and make plays. Just find the ball and go to it.'

"I was confident. I think confidence is a must. If I doubt myself, who is going to believe in me? I didn't doubt myself. I believed. And, I got a sack that first game, and I was on my way."

The Ravens' standout linebacker came to the Ravens as a fourth-round pick in 2003.

"I've always been confident that I could play, but I was nervous before that first preseason game. It was against the Giants. I didn't know what to expect, so there were some jitters. Then the game started and whoa, it was a lot faster than our practices. I looked out there and saw Ray [Lewis], Kelly [Gregg] and Anthony [Weaver] flying around. The tempo was clearly different.

"By the start of the second quarter, I was in there, playing defensive tackle, which is what I played at Alabama. I was a fat guy back then. I played every defensive snap the rest of the game and was on every special team. By the end of the game, I was really tired.

"It was cool in some ways. It was like it was do or die. I felt I had to get someone's attention. I was pretty confident that the Ravens were going to keep me, but I also had the sense that if they didn't, I was playing to make 31 other teams. I was going nonstop. I did OK, but I remember missing two sacks I should have made."

And Jarret, along with Matt, Chris and Jameel, have made a lot of plays since they were wide-eyed rookies playing for their football lives in preseason games. It's football played at the most intense level, often unnoticed by a lot of us.

Can't wait to see the full house at M&T Bank Stadium next Friday night against the Chiefs. Pick out a couple of rookies to watch in the second half and see them give everything they have to be a Raven. It will give you a different way to watch a preseason game.

Talk with you next week.


***Kevin Byrne** *, a Ravens senior vice president, has worked in the NFL for 32 years. Byrne has been with the Ravens since the start of the franchise in 1996. Earlier in his career, Byrne was the sports information director at Marquette University, his alma mater, when they won the 1977 NCAA basketball championship under coach Al McGuire.

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