Ravens add a big block in Searcy

Bid to defend title is strengthened as tackle joins Ogden

Mitchell signs with Panthers

Billick: Bookends give attack `comfort zone'

March 13, 2001|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Four days after signing quarterback Elvis Grbac, the Ravens swiftly locked up one of the league's premier bodyguards for him.

Leon Searcy, a free-agent right tackle from the Jacksonville Jaguars, agreed in principle with the Ravens yesterday, agent Drew Rosenhaus confirmed.

Considered the best tackle available in this year's free-agent market, Searcy, 31, is expected to sign his six-year, $31.5 million contract today at his Orlando, Fla., home. It's essentially a two-year deal with a four-year option.

The Ravens' offense, which ranked 16th in the NFL last season, can officially flex its muscles now as the Super Bowl champions tightened their grip on repeating. Flanking the 6-foot-4, 320-pound Searcy on the opposite side of left tackle Jonathan Ogden instantly gives the Ravens an imposing set of bookends.

"If indeed this happens, we think we will have one of the best tackle tandems in the league," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "That's always a coveted position to be in. It just affects the whole dynamic of what you can do offensively, both from a physical and schematic standpoint.

"You have a comfort zone whereby you don't have to protect those edges. It doesn't mean that you won't do it. But to not have to specifically turn your line a certain way or leave your back in to chip on one side or the other because of the ability of these tackles is huge."

The acquisition of Searcy caused a domino effect, setting off the busiest day of this year's off-season for the Ravens.

By opting to go after Searcy, the Ravens decided to part ways with free-agent center Jeff Mitchell, who signed with the Carolina Panthers yesterday.

"If you have to make a choice between the outside tackle vs. the inside player, you always go for the outside tackle," Billick said. "They're harder to come by."

In order to free up salary cap room for Searcy, the Ravens released backup defensive end Keith Washington and nickel back Robert Bailey. While the team wants to re-sign both players, Washington should draw serious interest after delivering two blocked field goals in the AFC Divisional victory at Tennessee.

The Ravens then solved their void at center by agreeing on a three-year, $6.1 million deal with Mike Flynn that included a $2.1 million signing bonus. A restricted free agent this year, Flynn bypassed his one-year, $1.115 million tender and will now move from right guard to center, where he played 13 effective quarters last season.

"We had serious conversations about moving Flynn to center even at the end of the year," Billick said. "Mike is probably as much the emotional and intellectual leader on the line just because of his temperament, his work ethic. He played very well for us at center. His physical tools fit very well for that position, maybe even better than a guard."

Said Ralph Cindrich, Flynn's agent: "It was an excellent move for the club and works out fine for us, too. He loves playing center."

With those moves, it's virtually assured that right tackle Harry Swayne, last year's starter, will be cut no later than June 1, the start of the second phase of free agency. A 14-year veteran, Swayne is scheduled to make $2 million next season, and has a cap figure of $4.5 million.

Without Swayne and Mitchell, the Ravens will have a different look along their offensive line for their title defense.

Mitchell, the Ravens' fifth-round pick in 1997, is the first of the team's 14 unrestricted free agents to sign. His five-year contract with the Panthers is worth $15 million, with a $4 million signing bonus.

"I told [Ravens chief negotiator] Pat Moriarty, `For 365 days, no one can doubt you. Until you win the next Super Bowl or you don't, no one can question your personnel decisions,'" said Ed Cunningham, Mitchell's agent.

Searcy was a Pro Bowl tackle in 1999, but missed last season due to a torn quadriceps above his right knee suffered in training camp. The Ravens aren't concerned about the injury because the 10-year veteran had started 111 of 112 games from 1993-1998 with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville.

Regarded as a powerful player with outstanding feet and quickness, Searcy is one of the best drive-blocking tackles in the league and was the protector of Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell's blind side.

It's a move that received a strong endorsement from the Ravens' top expert on Searcy. Defensive end Rob Burnett has gone one-on-one against Searcy twice a year for the past decade.

"The main thing about him that stands out to me is he plays with a lot of pride," Burnett said. "He just won't let you beat him. He'll try to get you back. Leon is the type of guy that it [ticks] him off [to be beaten on a play]. I like that in a player."

Searcy became available when the cap-strapped Jaguars released him before he received a $6 million roster bonus on March 1. Jacksonville did attempt to entice Searcy back, but the Jaguars couldn't match the Ravens' strong push - or playoff resume.

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