The question surrounding Deion Sanders's possible return to the NFL no longer seems to be whether the seven-time Pro Bowler will end his three-year retirement to join the Baltimore Ravens, but when.

"It's far enough along that when he feels he's ready. . . . Deion is a professional and he doesn't want to come in here unless he's ready to go, and we'll give him that kind of space," Coach Brian Billick said after the Ravens' morning practice at McDaniel College. "When he feels like he's physically at the right spot, we'd love to have him in."

Sanders is working out at his home in Texas, trying to determine if he is physically ready for a return. The Ravens aren't looking for Sanders to be a starter; they would use him in passing situations as the nickel back.

Speculation on when the future Hall of Famer might join the team has ranged from early September (for the Ravens' Sept. 12 opener at Cleveland) to October or even November. Billick said that the Ravens would like to see Sanders sooner rather than later, but that "we are going to respect the time frame that he's on."

Phone messages left for Eugene Parker, Sanders's agent, were not returned Wednesday.

"Our profile hasn't changed," Billick said. "He's obviously doing his due diligence to see if this is something he really wants to do. Certainly, we'd love to have him in and when we get to that point he'll be in."

The excitement surrounding the possible return of the player nicknamed "Prime Time" has even managed to draw attention away from Baltimore's upcoming preseason game with the Philadelphia Eagles and Terrell Owens, the wide receiver who spurned the Ravens in the offseason.

When Lamont Brightful fumbled a punt return during the morning practice, one fan yelled, "Where's Deion?" (Sanders was an outstanding returner, in addition to being a premier "shut-down" corner.) "Deion brings excitement to the game," linebacker Adalius Thomas said.

"We're already star-studded, but you bring 'Prime Time' to the game. . . . You used to watch him as a kid, and now you get the chance to sit down with him and pick his brain. . . . It'll be very exciting if he does come back."

Reporters and television crews surrounded cornerback Corey Fuller, one of Sanders's close friends, for insights into what Sanders, who considered a comeback in December 2002, might do. But even Fuller, who says that he talks to Sanders every day, gave conflicting information.

Over the course of a 10-minute interview, Fuller first proclaimed that Sanders was not going to return: "The man says he's not coming. . . . He's got four kids, and it's school time. You can say this and that about him, but I know otherwise."

A few moments later, Fuller seemed to back away from that statement: "It's 50-50. If the man comes, he comes. If he doesn't, he doesn't."

Regardless, Fuller said that Sanders works out regularly and is in great shape. Fuller added that Sanders invites young defensive backs and wide receivers to his home during the offseason and they do passing drills, which provide a gauge of where he stands.

"He's a special individual with special talents," Billick said. "He is not too old, I can promise you that."

Sanders hasn't played since the 2000 season, when he was with the Washington Redskins. He retired in July 2001, reportedly telling the Redskins that his performance the previous season was not up to his standards. But Sanders had also been critical of then-Redskins Coach Marty Schottenheimer during that offseason, and that factored into his decision to retire shortly before his 34th birthday.