To move forward, Ravens need veteran backup QB

March 01, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Ravens coach Brian Billick conceded yesterday that he would prefer an experienced backup quarterback. And even if the Ravens can't get Randall Cunningham, a former player of Billick's with Minnesota, they finally seem to grasp that a proven veteran makes more sense than Stoney Case.

Vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome said that the Ravens have made an offer to Case, but the team almost certainly would have interest in Cunningham if he became available after June 1, and could pursue other veterans in the meantime.

An aspiring playoff contender cannot enter the season with an inferior backup quarterback. And no longer does Billick sound comfortable with Case as his first alternative in the event of an injury to starter Tony Banks.

Cunningham, who turns 37 this month, would be a decent fit, but the Vikings chose yesterday to pay him a $1 million roster bonus rather than release him and take a $3.3 million hit on the salary cap. They still could release him on June 1 and spread the cap damage over two years, but will they even bother now?

Without Cunningham, the Ravens' current free-agent options include Mike Tomczak, Shane Matthews and Trent Dilfer. They can also wait until June 1, when Cunningham and other quarterbacks might become available.

"Everybody knows the chances of getting through the season with your top guy are limited," Billick said. "You would hate to have a playoff year affected by losing one or two games.

"Imagine Neil O'Donnell not being there at Tennessee this year. Imagine the dynamic, with Steve McNair being hurt, if they did not have someone with Neil O'Donnell's experience and capabilities.

"Depth at quarterback is invaluable. In many cases, you're looking for that experienced guy, so you're not just throwing him into the breach expecting him to do something that he has yet to do."

That would be the problem with Case.

"I've got a comfort zone with Stoney and his capability," Billick said. "But you're seeing the potential for some unique people to be pushed out onto the market, if not now, then June 1."

Owner Art Modell dismissed Case as "a pebble" at the end of last season. Newsome said yesterday that it would be difficult to fit Banks, Case and another veteran under the cap.

The message seems clear.

The Ravens don't want to take a chance that Case might receive significant playing time, especially when they expect to further bolster their playoff chances in the months ahead.

With the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft, they likely will face the choice of Michigan State receiver Plaxico Burress or Virginia running back Thomas Jones. Another intriguing option is to trade down.

Newsome said yesterday that the team is receiving offers for the pick, and will "very strongly" consider dropping to a position between eight and 12. The Ravens also hold the 15th selection in the first round.

By dealing out of the fifth spot, Newsome could add extra picks, with the possible goal of acquiring Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Carl Pickens in a separate trade. The Ravens then would draft the best available players with their two first-round picks. Maybe a running back like Alabama's Shaun Alexander. Maybe a quarterback like Marshall's Chad Pennington or Louisville's Chris Redman.

The logic for trading down is that many NFL people believe the draft includes only four premium players -- Florida State wide receiver Peter Warrick, Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington, Penn State defensive end Courtney Brown and Alabama offensive tackle Chris Samuels.

If one of those players somehow dropped to No. 5, the Ravens would strongly consider taking him (Brown might be the next Bruce Smith; Samuels could play right guard until Harry Swayne retires, then give the Ravens a second dominant tackle to go with Jonathan Ogden). But ultimately, the Ravens might decide that the quality of player available between Nos. 8 and 12 will be similar to that available at No. 5.

At this point, only one thing appears certain: The Ravens aren't going to make an offer to Cincinnati running back Corey Dillon as a restricted free agent. Newsome said yesterday that no visit is planned for Dillon, and the Ravens are reluctant to even negotiate with him, knowing the Bengals can retain Dillon by matching any offer.

Seriously, what are the odds that the Bengals would be willing to lose a premier 24-year-old back to a division rival even though they would receive first- and third-round picks in return?

About as meager as the Bengals trading that player to the same division rival, knowing they would face him twice a year as they move into a new stadium.

"It's in Cincy's court right now," Billick said. "What do they want to do?"

Dillon has said he would rather flip hamburgers than spend another season in Cincinnati, but Pickens signed a new contract after expressing similar frustration at the end of the 1998 season.

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