Byner ranks as key here NFL team views him as priority in re-signing effort

Steelers also interested

Hoard only other RB who is under contract

March 21, 1996|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's NFL team should have a new name next week, after which its players will report to the team's training complex in Owings Mills to begin their off-season conditioning program.

Will veteran running back Earnest Byner be among them?

Baltimore hopes soon to answer that question with a thumbs-up. The team has been negotiating with a handful of free agents it would like to have back for the 1996 season, and Byner ranks high on its priority list.

Byner, 33, completed his 12th pro season last year in Cleveland with a flourish. He caught a team-high, career-high 61 passes for 494 yards, added 432 yards rushing and took over ably as a starter for the injured Leroy Hoard in the season's last month. Hoard remains the team's only running back with measurable experience under contract.

Byner, who works out daily at the team's training facility in Berea, Ohio, is listening to offers from Baltimore, the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers.

Pittsburgh is said to have significant interest in Byner, because the Steelers recently cut fullback John L. Williams and head coach Bill Cowher is fond of Byner, having coached him on special teams for two seasons in Cleveland in the mid-1980s.

Byner, one of 10 Cleveland players who became unrestricted free agents after the 1995 season, earned $800,000 last year, including a $400,000 salary.

Byner's agent, Alan Herman, said a deal could be reached by today. Herman did not say which team was the front-runner in its pursuit of Byner.

"Earnest wants to be a part of this operation. We wants his career to end in Baltimore," said Ozzie Newsome, the team's director of football operations. "He brings intangibles to the table besides his football talent. I think it's us against us at this point."

Newsome was referring to the league salary cap, set at $40.8 million for 1996. Newsome said the team is "about $1.5 million" under the cap, which does not leave Baltimore with much money to spend. Then again, Baltimore has 47 players who are either under contract or beholden to the club's first-refusal rights a high number of protected players by NFL standards.

Baltimore's other priorities include signing center Steve Everitt and defensive tackle Dan Footman, both restricted free agents. Baltimore can retain their services by matching whatever offers they attract. If another teams signs them, Baltimore must be compensated with a first-round draft pick.

"We're real close with [signing] Footman, and we just started dialogue with Everitt," Newsome said.

The team also is looking to re-sign tight end Brian Kinchen, an unrestricted free agent who has talked with the New England Patriots. "He can either be a backup in New England [behind All-Pro Ben Coates] or he can be a starter with us," Newsome said.

Baltimore already has lost five players to free agency, most notably punter Tom Tupa, who signed with New England last week. They also have seen linebacker Gerald Dixon (Cincinnati Bengals), wide receiver Keenan McCardell (Jacksonville Jaguars), wide receiver Rico Smith (New York Jets) and running back Tommy Vardell move on. Vardell, who has missed most of the past two seasons with a knee injury, signed a two-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers yesterday.

Offensive guard Bob Dahl, whose contract was terminated after the 1995 season, has signed with the Washington Redskins. Baltimore then acquired guard Jeff Blackshear in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks.

Baltimore head coach Ted Marchibroda said the team probably will look to sign more free agents after next month's draft. Baltimore has the fourth pick, which it likely will use to take a running back such as Leeland McElroy, Lawrence Phillips or Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George.

"It would concern us if we lost a Byner or a Footman or an Everitt," Marchibroda said. "We've lost some quality people, but I don't think we've lost a really important guy. We haven't lost any players we can't replace."

Pub Date: 3/21/96

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