Je. Lewis' status will weigh heavily with Ravens

Pro Football

April 13, 2001|By Mike Preston

THERE ARE TIMES when the smallest player has the most impact, and diminutive receiver Jermaine Lewis might have the final say in the Ravens' top draft selection next weekend.

Both Lewis and owner Art Modell confirmed a recent meeting in the past month in which Lewis was asked to take a reduced salary and role. The Ravens want Lewis to become a full-time kickoff and punt return specialist in 2001 instead of splitting time at receiver.

Lewis, a Pro Bowl returner in 1998, is scheduled to make $2.2 million in base salary in 2001. Neither Modell nor Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, would discuss the amount of the reduction, but Lewis said it was about a "50 percent" pay cut.

Modell said the team is working on another arrangement that would possibly make up some of the difference in incentives, and that it would like an answer before the draft begins a week from tomorrow.

If Lewis says yes to the pay cut, then the Ravens might draft a tight end, such as Arizona State's Todd Heap or North Carolina's Alge Crumpler, who could work under veteran Shannon Sharpe. Or they might take an outside linebacker, such as Florida State's Tommy Polley, Vanderbilt's Jamie Winborn, or Georgia's Kendrell Bell to eventually replace current starter Peter Boulware, who needs to play well in the final two years of his contract to remain a Raven. Or the Ravens could take Arizona State safety Adam Archuleta.

If Lewis says no, the Ravens might be forced to cut him and then take a receiver who can return punts, such as Miami's Santana Moss or UCLA's Freddie Mitchell. Moss was expected to go before the Ravens selected in the first round, but he is falling because of questions concerning his background as well as his height (5 feet 9).

It's not an enviable position for the Ravens or Lewis, but Lewis might want to take the pay cut. The NFL owners have finally figured out this salary cap situation together. They aren't paying a lot of big contracts. The free-agent market is bare.

Did someone mention the word collusion?

Top return specialists around the league make about $1.5 million a season, but they aren't 5-7 and fragile. Lewis might earn only $500,000 to $750,000 elsewhere.

Lewis, though, doesn't see it that way.

"I don't know anything about a deadline yet," Lewis said. "Right now, I'm waiting to see if the team has a package together. I know I can still be a good receiver in this league, but I'm not looking at what is best for me, but for my family."

The loss of Lewis would have major effect. He was a driving force as far as returns during the second half of the season, especially in postseason. Actually, he was the team's best receiver in the opening quarter of the season, but quarterback Tony Banks struggled to get him or anyone else the ball.

Losing Lewis would leave more of a bad taste in fans' mouths than not re-signing quarterback Trent Dilfer. Lewis is homegrown, a native of Lanham, where he set track records at Eleanor Roosevelt High. He played at the University of Maryland, where he set more records on the football field. On Sundays the past five years, he has been a 5-7, 172-pound David on the field with Goliaths.

Who can root against him?

But in the business world known as the NFL, Lewis could become another cap casualty.

When a team signs players like quarterback Elvis Grbac, right offensive tackle Leon Searcy and re-sign outside linebacker Jamie Sharper to multi-year, multimillion-dollar contracts during the off-season, somebody has to go or take a pay cut.

A player like a Harry Swayne, whose role has been reduced from starting right offense tackle to swing lineman.

A player like Jermaine Lewis.

The Ravens' front office staff has been walking with a swagger during this off-season. That Super Bowl trophy has made more public appearances than head coach Brian Billick, which prompted Ravens radio broadcaster Gary Stein to say recently: "That thing [trophy] has been kissed and touched so much, it's the cause of hoof-and-mouth disease."

But the Ravens have to be careful with Lewis.

Modell has personally tried to persuade him to stay.

"I think I have an excellent relationship with him, and we became quite close during the situation with his child during the season," said Modell of Lewis, whose infant son was stillborn Dec. 13. "I personally took him my recommendation to come back, that we weren't trying to hurt him economically, and that we would try to make it up on the backside as far as incentives.

"We're not just talking about an excellent player, but a great young man," Modell said. "No one likes to take a pay cut. It's a matter of pride and ego. We're just at the point where we don't think he can play both positions. We'd like to get a decision before the draft, from either Jermaine or his agent."

The agent, Ray Anderson, represents Lewis, Billick and defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. Lewis didn't seemed thrilled about that one, either.

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