Ravens' options picking up thanks to draft, free agency

January 04, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Here's one possibility for the Ravens: Try to sign Cincinnati running back Corey Dillon as a restricted free agent and draft 6-foot-5 Michigan State receiver Plaxico Burress with the fifth overall pick, at the risk of losing the 14th overall pick and a third-rounder to the Bengals as compensation.

Here's another: Sign tight end Shannon Sharpe as an unrestricted free agent, trade down with the Atlanta pick, then draft Alabama running back Shaun Alexander, Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington and an offensive lineman.

And another: Sign wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad as an unrestricted free agent, take the best player available at No. 5, and Miami tight end Bubba Franks at No. 14, then use a second- or third-round pick on a quarterback such as Tennessee's Tee Martin.

Each of the above scenarios is realistic, though there is no way to know which players will be available until teams decide whether to designate veterans like Muhammad as franchise or transition players and until college juniors like Burress and Franks decide whether they will enter the draft.

The point is, the Ravens have options -- more options than they've ever had before entering the off-season, thanks to their two first-round picks and the anticipated infusion of Bisciotti money.

They might even have had a shot at Florida State wide receiver Peter Warrick if Atlanta's first-rounder had turned out to be the third selection instead of the fifth, but the Ravens can't exactly complain. The Falcons' No. 1 proved more valuable than they ever imagined.

With two of the first 14 picks, the Ravens can draft a pair of outstanding collegians. They can trade down to acquire even more selections. They can even make a Marshall Faulk trade if such a player becomes available.

Clearly, the Ravens need to find a No. 1 receiver, which would enable them to make Patrick Johnson their No. 2 and re-establish Jermaine Lewis in the slot. The unit might even become formidable, if they re-signed Qadry Ismail and developed Brandon Stokley.

But coach Brian Billick said yesterday that he would take an impact tight end over a receiver if given an either/or choice in free agency. And the idea of obtaining a big-time running back -- be it Dillon as a free agent or a Fred Taylor-type in the draft -- appears to hold significant appeal throughout the organization.

Errict Rhett is an unrestricted free agent, and Priest Holmes is restricted, meaning the Ravens can match any offer to keep him. Both enjoyed solid seasons. But neither can consistently dictate the tempo and change the face of a game.

"We're going to continue to be a pretty good vertical team," Billick said. "Whether we can be efficient in the intermediate passing game, that depends on the growth of the quarterback and the receivers.

"In lieu of that, if we play defense the way we do and establish a dominant running attack -- you run the ball when you want to run the ball; when you get on that 15-yard line, you can literally shove the ball into the end zone -- if you combine that with our vertical passing game, we're going to be formidable. And if we can bring along an intermediate passing game, great."

Which brings us to the quarterbacks.

Billick said Tony Banks will remain the starter if he re-signs, and also reaffirmed his devotion to Stoney Case, declaring that he had a "huge upside." But assuming both return, what happens if Banks regresses next season or gets injured? Do the Ravens really think they can make the playoffs with Case, who threw eight interceptions and only three touchdown passes?

A better solution would be to sign an established backup like Neil O'Donnell. And the Ravens still need to strongly consider drafting a quarterback, even though Pennington and Louisville's Chris Redman might not merit high first-round selections.

Granted, the Ravens might not want to use even a second- or third-round pick on a quarterback who would require two or three years of development. But if they're truly intent on fixing the position, they need to find another young quarterback, one who could possibly develop into a star.

Again, no one knows how all this will shake out. The free-agent market at receiver might not be deep if teams put franchise tags on players such as Muhammad and Joey Galloway. The Ravens then would be forced to draft a receiver -- which they might do, anyway -- and perhaps sign a free-agent tight end like Sharpe or Indianapolis' Ken Dilger.

Sharpe, in particular, would be a weapon in Billick's West Coast offense. He creates mismatches not only against linebackers, but also against many strong safeties. He would help solve the problems in the Ravens' intermediate passing game, and make them more effective in the red zone.

"They would love him here, but would Shannon want to be here?" asked Ravens offensive tackle Harry Swayne, Sharpe's former teammate in Denver. "I don't know if Shannon wants to semi-start over. He has been in Denver his whole career. He probably would stay in Denver for a little less money."

Perhaps, but Sharpe is only one player. The Ravens have two of the first 14 picks. They've got salary-cap flexibility. They've got financial resources they lacked in the past.

"You've got to feel good about where we are," Billick said.

Let the off-season begin.

Draft order

The top five picks in the 2000 NFL draft, to be held April 15-16 in New York:

1. Cleveland

2. Washington (from New Orleans)

3. San Francisco

4. Cincinnati

5. Ravens (from Atlanta)

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