When it comes to acquiring big-name talent, the Baltimore Ravens seem to have cornered the market. The names on the roster read like a virtual who's who in the NFL.
Ray Lewis. Jonathan Ogden. Chris McAlister. Jamal Lewis. Ed Reed. Todd Heap. Peter Boulware.
The Ravens return eight players who made the Pro Bowl last season. Only the Kansas City Chiefs sent as many representatives to Hawaii a year ago.
The Sporting News' rating of the NFL's Top 100 players from the past season lists eight Ravens -- Ray Lewis (third), Ogden (12th), McAlister (20th), Jamal Lewis (21st), Reed (31st), Heap (58th), Boulware (92nd) and linebacker Terrell Suggs (98th). No team had more. By comparison, the Buffalo Bills had just two players (linebacker Takeo Spikes at No. 52 and running back Travis Henry at No. 58) on the list.
The Sporting News also rates Ray Lewis as the league's best middle linebacker and Ogden as the top offensive tackle. McAlister is rated the second-best cornerback and Reed the No. 2 safety. Jamal Lewis and Heap are ranked third among running backs and tight ends, respectively. Three other players are rated in the top 10 at their positions by the national publication.
And let's not forget about the unretired Deion Sanders, a future Hall of Famer.
"It's awesome," Ravens defensive end Anthony Weaver said of the star-studded roster that will take on the Bills on Sunday in M&T Bank Stadium. "To be on this team, with the tremendous amount of athletes we have, it's really crazy to sit back and think about it sometimes."
With a roster made up of mostly home-grown players, the Ravens are unique in this salary-cap era. They won the Super Bowl in 2000 with several key free agents from other clubs, most notably defensive tackles Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa, free safety Rod Woodson and tight end Shannon Sharpe. But after purging the roster of expensive and aging veterans before the 2002 season, the Ravens focused on building from within. Of the team's 22 offensive and defensive starters, 21 began their careers with the franchise.
Some teams can only hope to hit as many home runs in the draft as the Ravens. Since arriving in Baltimore in 1996, the Ravens have had 11 first-round draft picks. Ten are still with the team, and all are starters. Of the eight Pro Bowlers last year, seven were first-rounders. The other, starting linebacker and special teams ace Adalius Thomas, was a sixth-round find in 2000.
The Ravens hit the mother lode in their first draft, landing future Hall of Fame players in Ogden and Ray Lewis with the fourth and 26th overall picks in 1996.
The Ravens used the draft to construct one of the NFL's premier defenses, led by Lewis, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP. Boulware (1997 Defensive Rookie of the Year), Suggs (2003 Defensive Rookie of the Year), McAlister and Reed also achieved stardom the minute they stepped into the league.
The Ravens' only first-round miss has been wide receiver Travis Taylor, who has yet to live up to being the 10th pick in the 2000 draft. Quarterback Kyle Boller, the second of Baltimore's two first-round picks last year, is off to a poor start but has the potential to be a good player.
However, you can't argue with the overall work of General Manager and Executive Vice President Ozzie Newsome and Phil Savage, player personnel chief. They are the architects of a club that has made the playoffs three of the last four years.
"I don't know if there's a better combination than Ozzie Newsome and Phil Savage in the league," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We don't have many first-day mistakes. That's been the backbone of our success."
With all this talent, you would think the Ravens would be pushing the New England Patriots for AFC supremacy. But injuries have contributed to Baltimore's 3-2 start.
Center Mike Flynn will miss his sixth game Sunday with a broken collarbone. Boulware is still recuperating from offseason knee surgery. Heap will miss his third straight game with a sprained ankle. Taylor has been out since the opener with an injured groin, though he's expected to play Sunday.
The Ravens also must play without Jamal Lewis, serving the first of a two-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
But those setbacks don't faze Billick, who believes there is still plenty of talent on hand to stay in contention for a second straight AFC North title.
"This group has grown up together," he said. "They've been through a lot. They've weathered those storms. Even though they're a very young team, there's a collective experience and familiarity there. They're a great group to work with."