Future must for Ravens: Rolling dice for a veteran

April 23, 2000|By John Eisenberg

When the Jets traded Pro Bowl wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two first-round picks before the draft, it became clear the Ravens had decided not to pursue Johnson. They could have trumped the Bucs' offer with a better pair of first-round picks, but they didn't.

In the end, they used the picks to draft Jamal Lewis and Travis Taylor, a running back and a receiver. Both selections filled a need and offered the promise of added life to an offense that struggled last season. It was hard to argue with the Ravens' decision-making, even though there's no telling how Lewis and Taylor will fare.

But make no mistake, there was an alternative. A good one. Every catch Johnson makes for the Bucs next season will amount to a nagging whisper in the Ravens' ear: "Woulda, coulda, shoulda."

Maybe it was the wrong time for them to make such a move. Maybe they aren't close enough to the top of the league yet to warrant investing two high picks and $56 million in one player. That's what the Bucs had to do.

But one of these days, the Ravens are going to have to make such a move. Get more daring. Take a chance.

They're going to have to break a habit that has seen them pull back from trading multiple picks for Johnson, quarterback Brad Johnson and running back Marshall Faulk.

The way team-building in the NFL works today, you can rely on the draft for some of your cornerstone, but not all of it. At some point, you're going to have to fill a major hole with a proven, costly veteran. And that means giving up draft picks.

It's a tough thing to do, especially when a team has drafted as well as the Ravens in the first round.

But look at the rewards.

The Redskins gave up three picks for Brad Johnson, a talented quarterback with a history of injuries. It was a high-risk, high-reward move, and it paid off last season. Now the Redskins are aiming at the Super Bowl.

The Rams stole Faulk, giving the Colts just second- and fifth-round picks for the opportunity to sign him to a long-term deal. The dividends were immediate and enormous, in the form of the franchise's first Super Bowl title three months ago.

(In the Ravens' defense, it was the money more than the draft picks that caused them to shy away from Faulk. They recognized the good deal on the table, but they didn't want to pay so much in the days before current minority owner -- and future sole owner --Steve Bisciotti bought into the team.)

The Bucs figure to be the next team to demonstrate the upside of dealing draft picks in the right situation. They already had a defense strong enough to win a Super Bowl. With Johnson making their offense more potent, the Bucs look like the NFC's best bet right now.

Isn't it interesting that, in the wake of the draft, a team that traded two first-round picks is the one on the cover of Sports Illustrated?

Again, the Ravens probably weren't ready to make such a move. They still haven't had a winning season. They still have too many needs, too many question marks.

But while their philosophy of building through the draft has served them well so far -- resulting in such players as Jonathan Ogden, Peter Boulware and Ray Lewis -- the time to alter that philosophy is coming now that the overall talent level has gone up and the forecast keeps improving.

Here's a guideline to use: If a first-round pick guarantees the addition of a franchise player such as Boulware or Ogden, don't even think about trading it. Otherwise, think hard, because the pick is overrated, at least to some degree.

Players drafted after the franchise guys are gone aren't sure things, by any means. As much as everyone gushes on draft day, the reality is that a lot of high-profile rookies don't live up to expectations. Only a handful do.

Look at the Ravens. In back-to-back years, they drafted cornerbacks with the 10th pick in the first round. Chris McAlister looks like a hit. Duane Starks? Well, maybe.

In today's NFL, you can fill a hole with a veteran just as easily as a rookie, and with less risk. A veteran acquired with a high pick is more proven, and in many cases, a sounder investment.

The Ravens violated that principle this year. There were four franchise players in the 2000 draft, and all were gone when the Ravens chose Jamal Lewis with the fifth pick. We'll see if Lewis was worth the pick and the big money it's going to take to sign him.

But either way, the Ravens are reaching a point where taking a risk will not only be a good idea, but necessary.

If they keep improving, they won't be drafting as high and getting players of the same quality.

At the same time, a gaping hole is going to evolve at a key position. You watch.

Dealing draft picks could be the best way to fill the hole.

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