Ravens face winter of comings, goings

Playoff pursuit to have different look in '00

January 09, 2000|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Now that the Ravens have officially attained a state of mediocrity with the first non-losing year in team history, they are starting to envision the roster that could lift them into the uncharted territory of the playoffs in the 2000 season.

And what a different face the 8-8 Ravens could have in the coming months.

For starters, 19 of their players are scheduled to become free agents on Feb. 11, unless the NFL Players Association and the league agree to push the date to March 2.

The Ravens begin their off-season with two goals in mind -- beefing up a lean offense that ranked 24th in the NFL, and preserving key elements of a stout defense that finished second-best in the league.

Their early priorities include re-signing players like quarterback Tony Banks, defensive end Rob Burnett, defensive tackle Larry Webster, wide receiver Qadry Ismail, cornerback DeRon Jenkins and kicker Matt Stover.

Once the free-agent shopping season opens, expect the Ravens to look mainly for offensive help.

Coach Brian Billick said that finding a proven, go-to receiver -- like Seattle's Joey Galloway, Carolina's Muhsin Muhammad or Cincinnati's Carl Pickens -- is high on his list. Billick said the Ravens might spring first for an excellent, pass-catching tight end. Denver's Shannon Sharpe and Indianapolis' Ken Dilger are among the most attractive options.

The Ravens also would love to find an every-down tailback with breakaway speed, which means Errict Rhett or Priest Holmes might not be here much longer. Rhett is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Holmes is restricted, meaning Holmes could sign an offer sheet with another team and the Ravens could retain him by matching the offer.

The Ravens appear poised to spend the money required to shore up some areas of need.

By the end of the 1999 season, they were $842,000 under the league's $57.3 million salary cap. The cap figures to rise to $62.2 million for the 2000 season. The Ravens will free up more cap space by not bringing back expensive players like quarterback Scott Mitchell ($2.5 million salary) and backup offensive lineman James Atkins ($1 million roster bonus last year).

And with the $275 million cash infusion recently provided by minority owner Stephen J. Bisciotti -- he will purchase the team over the next four to six years for $600 million -- the Ravens should be able to compete for the services of some high-priced help.

"We're at the top of the bell curve looking at the downhill or the plus side," Billick said. "We've taken some steps toward success. We're not looking at that long, uphill battle anymore. You've got to feel good about where we are."

Here is a glance at where the Ravens could be headed:


The bulk of the staff should remain intact, although the Ravens could lose defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis to his first head coaching opportunity. New England has expressed interest in him, and Lewis might become a candidate in Green Bay, New Orleans or with the New York Jets.

Should Lewis leave Baltimore, there is strong speculation that linebackers coach Jack Del Rio would be promoted to coordinator. In addition, Billick is expected to take a long look at replacing special teams coach Russ Purnell.


Billick said Banks is his starter until he proves otherwise. Now the Ravens have to sign him. Starting quarterbacks typically average $3 million a year, so Banks stands to sign the richest deal of his four-year career, here or elsewhere.

Billick touted Stoney Case's potential all season, but his return isn't automatic. In the words of team owner Art Modell, "Stoney turned into a pebble. I don't think he is the answer."

The Ravens could fill a backup role by signing another veteran, and they will look to add a passer through the draft, in which they own two first-round choices. The team will look hard at blue-chippers Chris Redman of Louisville and Chad Pennington of Marshall. Billick also said the Ravens could pass on those two and select another quarterback in the second or third round.

Offensive backfield

The Ravens got solid production from their tailback rotation of Rhett and Holmes. The team averaged 4.1 yards on 431 carries. Still, the Ravens wouldn't mind upgrading by signing a free agent like Cincinnati's Corey Dillon, one of the top backs in the AFC.

Dillon is a restricted free agent who might be looking for the first good offer sheet to sign. He could command an average of at least $3 million a year. Holmes is a restricted free agent who could attract a juicy outside offer of his own. He rebounded from a sprained knee to average 5.6 yards a carry in 1999, and he ran better than ever at season's end. He also had his best year as a pass receiver. There probably is not room for Holmes and Rhett in 2000.

Chuck Evans, the best fullback the team has ever had, is signed for two more seasons. Fourth-year tailback Jay Graham began the season as an afterthought and remained one.

Wide receivers

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