Falcons take flier on Zeier But Ravens almost certain to match QB's 2-year, $2.6M offer

March 06, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

The Ravens have vowed to retain the services of restricted free-agent quarterback Eric Zeier, and the Atlanta Falcons decided to put Zeier's team to the test.

Zeier signed a two-year, $2.6 million offer sheet from the Falcons yesterday. The deal includes a $2 million signing bonus and a base salary of $300,000 for the 1998 and 1999 seasons.

The Ravens expect to receive the offer sheet from the NFL today, after which they will have one week to match Atlanta's offer.

If they fail to do so, the Ravens will lose Zeier, a fourth-year backup passer out of Georgia whose stock rose last December, when he replaced benched starter Vinny Testaverde and led the Ravens to two victories in their last three games.

Ravens owner Art Modell said earlier this week that Zeier, picked the Cleveland Browns in the third round of the 1995 draft, would remain in Baltimore.

"Once we look at the offer, we'll make a decision, but the owner has been very clear that he was going to match any offer [for Zeier]," said Ozzie Newsome, the team's vice president of player personnel. "Once we get the offer, we'll know what we have to do to match it."

Said Modell: "I've heard about it, but I'm not going to comment on it until I see the offer."

The Falcons are pursuing insurance for often-injured starting quarterback Chris Chandler. They were impressed enough by Zeier's 1997 performance to propose a deal that represents a huge increase over the $233,300 he made last season.

During last season's 13th game in Jacksonville, Zeier relieved Testaverde after he suffered a knee injury. Zeier nearly led the team to a come-from-behind victory, then was given the starting job for the season's final three games. Over that span, the Ravens went 2-1, largely due to Zeier, who completed 58 of 97 passes for 855 yards and six touchdowns without an interception. Zeier ended the year with a quarterback rating of 101.1.

"Obviously, I'm very appreciative of what Atlanta did. I'm happy they showed enough faith in me to come after me like that," Zeier said. "I also love Baltimore. I love this city, and I love the direction the organization is moving in. It will be an anxious time during the next week. I'm looking forward to the decision that will be made."

Unless they retain Zeier, the Ravens, who acquired quarterback Jim Harbaugh in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts last month, might be forced to rethink their probable plans to release or trade Testaverde after June 1.

In other areas, the Ravens appear to have one fewer option as they look for ways to replace veteran cornerback Antonio Langham, who left them to sign a five-year, $17 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers.

New Orleans Saints cornerback Eric Allen, whom the Ravens had eyed, was traded to the Oakland Raiders yesterday for a fourth-round pick in this year's draft. Allen reportedly has balked at the deal, since he apparently is not interested in playing for the Raiders.

If the Ravens are unable to acquire the 10-year veteran, they could turn their focus to three-year veteran Tyrone Poole, whom the Carolina Panthers are expected to trade. The Panthers recently signed free-agent cornerback Doug Evans to complement Eric Davis, making Poole expendable.

Poole, 5 feet 9 and 188 pounds, a first-round draft pick entering the final year of a four-year, $3.4 million contract, is due to earn $704,000 in 1998.

"Am I concerned [about the cornerback situation]? Yeah," Newsome said. "Could we line up and play today with what we have? Yeah. I just want to get the right player in here. The key is getting a good player, whether by trade or by the draft."

Although the Ravens are considering an upgrade by drafting a cornerback like Southern California's Brian Kelly or Miami's Duane Starks, Newsome said he would prefer hiring an experienced pro for the starting job.

The Ravens also are facing the prospect of losing special teams standout Bennie Thompson to free agency. Thompson, an eight-year veteran, reportedly is unhappy with the Ravens' one-year offer of $325,000 -- the league minimum -- plus a $25,000 signing bonus.

According to Thompson's agent, Terry Lavenstein, the Philadelphia Eagles, Tennessee Oilers and Colts have expressed serious interest in Thompson.

"I don't know what the mind-set of the Ravens' front office is," nTC Lavenstein said. "They've told me [Thompson] is a priority, what type of leader he is, what kind of special teams force he is, yet the offer they made is substantially less that the ones I'm discussing with other teams.

"At the outset, it was Bennie's intention to stay in Baltimore. He loves the fans here, loves the city. But the offer on the table from the Ravens is what can only be described as a slap in his face."

Pat Moriarty, the Ravens' chief financial officer, said, "We're trying to sign [Thompson]. We're trying to present a fair and equitable deal that we feel is in line with the market. Anytime you deal in free agency, you find a difference of opinion in players' market values. And just because some deals take longer than others [to close] doesn't mean that player isn't a priority."

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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