Modell sees lofty perch for Ravens Feisty owner defends moves

'elite team' isn't far away, he says

Zeier to stay, Neujahr to go

Potts, Woodson lauded

2 Lewis extensions due

March 03, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

Ravens owner Art Modell said yesterday that he plans to keep backup quarterback Eric Zeier, let reserve center Quentin Neujahr move on and possibly restructure the contracts of some of the team's younger stars, such as linebacker Ray Lewis and wide receiver Jermaine Lewis, before the end of the 1998 season.

During a one-hour interview yesterday at the team's downtown headquarters, Modell was feisty, defensive and extremely confident about the Ravens' chances in the 1998 season.

He touched on a number of subjects, such as the recent addition of cornerback Rod Woodson, exploring last-minute deals in the NFL draft next month and defending the team's decision to sign fullback Roosevelt Potts.

One subject Modell had no comment about: internal trade talks involving receiver Michael Jackson.

Modell quashed any talk about Zeier's departure, saying the three-year veteran would remain in Baltimore despite recent inquiries from several teams, including the Atlanta Falcons. Zeier is a restricted free agent who played at the University of Georgia.

If Zeier gets an offer from another team, the Ravens have the right to match it or accept a draft pick as compensation. Zeier started the final three games of the 1997 season for the Ravens, winning two.

"We'll match it. We're not letting Zeier go. I don't think they'll do that," Modell said in response to a possible Atlanta offer. "They don't know anything about him other than that he's a good marketing tool in Georgia."

Modell indicated that the decision on Neujahr might be based on Woodson's passing his physical today. Woodson has agreed in principle to a four-year contract worth nearly $11.5 million.

If he is cleared to play, the team won't match the three-year deal the Jacksonville Jaguars have offered Neujahr, a restricted free agent, instead banking on rookie Jeff Mitchell to start at center and moving center Wally Williams to left guard.

Mitchell missed all of last season after injuring his knee in training camp.

"Kirk Ferentz [offensive line coach] likes him very much in their short, brief encounter," Modell said. "He'll have an off-season under his belt, and he'll be stronger than he has ever been."

Modell was just as optimistic about Woodson, who underwent a magnetic resonance imaging yesterday. The owner defended his team's decision to agree to a contract with the former Pittsburgh Steelers star before having him examined.

A year ago, the Ravens had a similar situation with free-agent safety Brock Marion, and it ended in an embarrassing news conference with team officials having to announce the contract was voided because of Marion's shoulder injury.

Marion later re-signed with the Dallas Cowboys.

"I don't know why he wasn't given a physical the last time he was here," Modell said of Woodson. "Maybe the doctors weren't available. If we have to reject the contract because he is physically unable to perform, then we'll do it. We just want to be doubly sure about the player we're getting."

Modell sounded excited about Potts, who missed the 1996 season with the Indianapolis Colts because he violated the league's policy on substance and alcohol abuse.

The owner took offense to critics who have said Potts doesn't deserve a second chance in Baltimore, especially in the aftermath of former Ravens running back Bam Morris, who was sentenced to four months in a Texas jail in mid-January after repeated run-ins with the law.

"We took Roosevelt Potts because my coach wanted Potts. He called me up after we got him and said we got one hell of a football player," Modell said.

Modell would not comment about trade talks involving Jackson. Privately, the team would have preferred to have kept wide receiver Derrick Alexander, who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs yesterday, and parted with Jackson.

"Michael Jackson has played some good football for the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens," Modell said. "He did not have a Michael Jackson year by his own admission. What he has to do, what others have to do, I'm almost obsessed with this, he's got to get into an off-season program. We expect a good year out of Michael Jackson. We expect nothing less."

The Ravens are prepared to start Jermaine Lewis opposite Jackson this season, and Modell expects big things from Lewis.

He said that once the team has signed its free-agent players and rookies, he will use the money left under the salary cap to offer contract extensions to Ray and Jermaine Lewis.

Jermaine Lewis, who had a base salary of $164,000 last season, is an unrestricted free agent next season, and Ray Lewis, who will make a base salary of $675,000 this year, will be a free agent after two more years.

Modell said the team already has budgeted for a full practice squad in 1998.

"We're building our team around good, solid, young people, and we'll do everything to reward and keep them," Modell said.

Modell said the Ravens recently have explored trading up in the draft possibly to select Michigan cornerback and Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, but the team, which has the No. 10 pick overall, had no really solid offers. Modell said the team is more inclined to trade down for more draft picks.

"Over the past two seasons, our draft picks and free-agent selections have been impeccable," Modell said. "We've got to see what happens. I like what I see. My coaches like what they see. The town likes what it sees. We still may be the elite team I talked about having in 1998, or not far from it."

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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