Free agency could throw Ravens for a huge loss

Many starters among 19 about to hit the market

February 09, 2000|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

Barring any last-minute deals, the Ravens' 19 unrestricted free agents will be able to sign with other teams when the free-agent period opens Friday. The list includes standout players such as place-kicker Matt Stover, defensive linemen Larry Webster and Rob Burnett, quarterback Tony Banks, receiver Qadry Ismail and Bennie Thompson, the team's top special teams player.

Of the players who will be available to sign, Banks' loss would have the most impact because that would mean the team would have a new quarterback learning the West Coast system for the second straight year. It also could mean the Ravens' seventh starting quarterback in the five years the team has been in Baltimore.

Banks was 6-4 in the 10 games he started last season after replacing Scott Mitchell and Stoney Case. He completed 169 of 320 passes for 2,136 yards and 17 touchdowns. Banks' agent, Marvin Demoff, was in Hawaii yesterday and did not return phone calls. But Banks is believed to want a contract worth nearly $3 million per season, which is close to the average salary of a starter at the position and what Mitchell made last season.

Burnett would be second on the Ravens' priority list. He overcame two years of nagging knee injuries with a Pro Bowl-like performance, finishing tied for fourth on the team in tackles with 81 and 6.5 sacks. He also knocked down seven passes.

According to a source close to the negotiations, Burnett would like a significant amount of up-front money through a signing bonus, but the Ravens are concerned about giving the large sum to a 32-year-old player. Burnett's agent, James A. Simms Sr., was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Agent Tony Paige, who represents Webster, said it didn't appear his client could work out a deal with the Ravens and they were going to hit the free-agent market along with cornerback DeRon Jenkins and running back Errict Rhett. A source close to Ismail said the team's leading receiver last season with 68 receptions for 1,105 yards and six touchdowns also probably would test the market.

Since the Ravens' season ended Jan. 2 with a 20-3 loss to New England, the team has yet to re-sign any of its players or tender offers to any of the restricted free agents, including starting outside linebacker Jamie Sharper. Sharper is one of the top options to play middle linebacker if Ray Lewis, in an Atlanta jail facing double-murder charges, isn't able to return.

Ravens officials didn't seem too concerned yesterday about all the free agents, even though the team has a reputation for moving too slowly at times.

"Concerned? Nope," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens vice president of player personnel. "We've had talks or exchanged proposals with every agent, and we're pleased where our negotiations are. We're also prepared to pursue in the event we lose somebody. We suspect there might be some last-minute deals, because the agents feel they have a little leverage. Once it gets beyond December, negotiations move at the agents' pace. They have other clients, as well as those from the Ravens."

If the Ravens fail to sign Burnett and Webster, last year's No. 2-ranked defense would be vulnerable, especially if Lewis doesn't return. The Ravens were ranked No. 2 against the run last year, allowing 76.9 yards a game and only 3.1 a carry. Webster was a big part of the rushing defense, along with fellow defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, who took on blockers so Lewis could roam.

But the team is taking a small gamble with Webster, because few big-name tackles are on the market. Atlanta defensive tackle Shane Dronett recently signed a five-year, $16.5-million contract that included a $3.5-million signing bonus. There are some who believe the Falcons overpaid Dronett, but that may have set the tone for the market.

Is Webster worth that much? "I would say we're looking for a similar deal," said Paige, whose client will get a good look from New England coach Bill Belichick, Webster's former coach in Cleveland. "Basically, their position is that they're not going to pay what we have asked them, and they don't think we can get it on the open market. Don't bet on it. They thought the same thing about James Jones [who signed with Detroit] last year."

Webster said: "Last year, we beat Tennessee, and we showed that we could play with Jacksonville. We're on the verge of something big here. It would be a shame to break it up."

As of Monday, the Ravens had not made a serious offer to Ismail, and Stover's agent, Jim Steiner, wasn't sure if he could work out a deal with the Ravens before Friday. Stover connected on 28 of 33 field-goal attempts, including his last 18. "We've had one conversation with the Ravens," said Steiner. "It's a busy time of year, and I have other clients. Matt would like to stay there, but this involves that nasty word, the M-word [money]."

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