Ravens' draft needs start from ground up Team's No. 1 priority is game-breaking back

Phillips a possibility

April 03, 1996|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Ravens will begin interviewing 20 of the nation's top college football players next week at their Owings Mills training facility in preparation for the NFL draft later this month.

The two-day draft period begins April 20, and the Ravens have 10 picks, including the Nos. 4 and 26 selections in the first round.

Director of football operations Ozzie Newsome said yesterday the Ravens need help in a number of areas, including linebacker, cornerback, tight end, running back and wide receiver.

The most glaring problem for the Ravens -- 5-11 last season as the Cleveland Browns -- is their lack of a game-breaking runner. Five running backs are among the players who will visit the team next week: Nebraska's Lawrence Phillips, Texas A&M's Leeland McElroy, Michigan's Tim Biakabutuka, UCLA's Karim Abdul-Jabbar and Ohio State's Eddie George.

Newsome was evasive, however, when asked to identify the team's possible draft choices.

"The draft will be based on need and depth," he said. "We have never brought in as many players as we're bringing in this time. A lot of this is because of the transition [from Cleveland]. It's our chance to sit down and talk with the players."

Ted Marchibroda was hired as head coach after the NFL scouting combines in February, "so he needs to meet with some players," Newsome said, adding that owner Art Modell will also meet with potential draftees.

Phillips is considered the best of a talented group of running backs, but his off-the-field problems -- he was convicted last fall of assaulting his former girlfriend -- have put Phillips in the high-risk classification.

"The day we or any other team draft him, they're not going to ask him how good a football player he is," said Newsome. "It's going to be about the suspension, about the abuse with the girlfriend."

Newsome has spent a considerable amount of time with Phillips, including two hours at a recent scouting combine. Phillips' meeting here next week may be crucial.

"Do we get paid to win games or have nice people around?" said Newsome. "By mid-October, people will be wondering why we're not winning football games. When you do your work -- I mean really do it thoroughly -- then I have no problem standing up and raising my hand to vote yea or nay."

McElroy is a different type of runner than Phillips. McElroy is shiftier, seems to have better instincts and more acceleration. Newsome said McElroy's ability to return punts and kickoffs is another attractive part of his package.

"Definitely," said Newsome. "I feel that five or six running backs may go in the first round, four in the top 15 picks."

The Ravens' search for a linebacker may be based more on depth than need. The Ravens have four, including Pepper Johnson, who will start in the middle.

If Craig Powell, the team's No. 1 pick last year, recovers completely from a knee injury, the team would have two solid outside linebackers in Powell and Mike Caldwell.

The Ravens could be faced with another difficult choice if Illinois linebacker Kevin Hardy and defensive end Simeon Rice are available after three picks: Does the team take one of them or pick a running back?

Newsome said Hardy is the best linebacker on film he has seen in three years. Rice is already a great pass rusher and could become a fine outside linebacker once the Ravens convert to a 3-4 defense.

Newsome denied speculation that the Ravens were trying to work a deal with the New York Jets to obtain the No. 1 pick to select Hardy.

"To work that deal, we would probably have to give up our No. 4 and No. 26 picks," said Newsome. "We're not going to do that. I like our position."

Tight end Brian Kinchen recently re-signed with the Ravens, but the team is looking for more speed at that position. Two of the best in the draft are Ohio State's Rickey Dudley, who rapidly has improved his stock in the past few months, and Eastern Kentucky's Jason Dunn.

The Ravens need another aggressive cornerback, but aren't likely to use a first-round pick for one.

NOTE: Veteran free-agent running back Earnest Byner, 33, and the Ravens are still negotiating a contract, but the stumbling block seems to be the amount of years. Byner wants a three-year deal, the Ravens are offering two.

Pub Date: 4/03/96

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