Every time Jermaine Lewis returns to the Baltimore Ravens' huddle limping even slightly, as he did after getting his feet tangled with cornerback James Trapp and falling hard during a medium-range pass play at practice last week, Coach Brian Billick and his aides freeze with fright. Concern over keeping the gifted but vulnerable wide receiver-punt returner as healthy as possible this season has Billick committed to drastically cutting the number of chances of him being hit.

"We've got to use him intelligently, pick our spots during the course of a game to not use Jermaine up," Billick said. "I'd say that would be about 35 to 40 snaps during a 65-snap game. That's not anything hard, chiseled in stone. But to go beyond that puts us somewhat at risk, because losing Jermaine not only hurts your offense but you also lose your best weapon on special teams."

The major reason Lewis lasted until the fifth round of the 1996 draft was his size--5 feet 7 and 172 pounds. And while the former University of Maryland star from Eleanor Roosevelt High School has been one of the NFL's most spectacular players during his three seasons, making the Pro Bowl as a punt returner last year, he also has missed a lot of time with a variety of injuries.

Last season, for instance, he had touchdown receptions of 64, 58, 56, 73 and 46 yards. His 19.1-yard average, on 41 catches, was third-best in the NFL. Lewis also scored on 69- and 87-yard punt returns. Green Bay Packers wide receiver Antonio Freeman also had six touchdowns of 50 or more yards, but no one in the NFL had done that since Billy "White Shoes" Johnson in 1977.

However, Lewis also missed three of the final four games with an ankle injury. Ankle injuries caused him to miss five starts in 1997.

"You don't ever want to come off the field," Lewis said. "But he's the coach and can do whatever he wants. You're never sure how it'll work out [until the regular season begins], so we'll see."

A half-dozen or more of the Ravens' other wide receivers have once-lofty renown or considerable potential, but unless they perform well once the games count, Billick may well be pressured to play Lewis more.

Free agent acquisition Webster Slaughter was among the NFL's best receivers from 1989 through 1994, but has caught a total of eight passes the past two seasons. Another free agent, Billy Davis, had 39 catches for the Dallas Cowboys last season.

Second-year speedster Patrick Johnson is playing the wide receiver position opposite Lewis with the first unit. A second-round draft choice last season, Johnson played very well during preseason games but caught just 12 passes in the regular season.

"We don't have to rush to judgment," Billick said of the other wide receivers. "We're going to let it play itself out."

Lewis considered surgery on his ankle after last season but opted against it. He thought fatigue might have been a factor, although his role last season was reduced.

During 1997, Lewis started at wide receiver, averaging 15.4 yards on 42 catches, and was the main returner on kickoffs and punts. Last season, he mostly gave way to veteran defensive back Corey Harris on kickoffs, and Harris averaged 27.8 yards on 35 returns.

"Maybe near the end of the season you wear down," Lewis said. "But sometimes you just get hurt trying to make plays, getting that extra yard."

Lewis wants to continue returning punts--and Billick suggests that will happen. But the Ravens added one of the best kickoff and punt returners ever in the NFL, Eric Metcalf, during the offseason. Metcalf is running behind Lewis on punts.

Another free agent, Qadry Ismail, is in the mix on punt returns. Johnson is backing up Harris on kickoffs.

All the wide receivers have had to adjust to Billick's new offense. Not only are there dozens of options but the wide receivers also occasionally change positions, from being split outside to manning the slot on three-wideout formations, to best match their skills against defenders.

"With all the formations and options," Lewis said, "it sometimes seems like we've got 1,000 plays. You've got to understand the concepts to execute--and that takes a little while."