... And still champion

Ravens: A strong three-play drive in free agency allows the Super Bowl kings to strengthen their reign in the AFC Central.

Pro Football

April 15, 2001|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The Ravens' championship run didn't end on that fateful night in Tampa, Fla.

Less than three months removed from hoisting the Super Bowl trophy, the Ravens have raised the stakes on repeating with some of the league's most impressive moves during the first phase of free agency. Usually known for their draft expertise, the Ravens made their biggest noise in the open market this time.

They signed a Pro Bowl arm in quarterback Elvis Grbac and one of the league's best right tackles in Leon Searcy. They lucked out when defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis didn't land one of the eight head-coaching vacancies. And they retained linebacker Jamie Sharper after a cap-stricken league left him few other choices.

Now with the NFL draft a week away, there's a growing consensus that the Ravens have created more distance atop the AFC Central and possibly the rest of the league.

"I think they've been very gutsy," said Ron Jaworski, an ESPN analyst. "A lot of teams, they win a Super Bowl and you're content and happy with everything. There's no doubt in my mind coming up to the draft that the Ravens won a world championship and are clearly a better football team right now."

Those daring moves will ultimately be applauded or second-guessed.

In finding a new quarterback, the Ravens lost the Brad Johnson derby to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and quickly grabbed Grbac. That choice ended any chance of Trent Dilfer returning as the Ravens officially became the first Super Bowl champions to let their starting quarterback go to another team the next season.

The Ravens then decided to part ways with two of their own developed talents. When they went after Searcy, they let Jeff Mitchell, their three-year starting center, sign with the Carolina Panthers. When they locked themselves into re-signing Sharper, they couldn't afford to pursue safety Kim Herring, who moved on to the St. Louis Rams.

"I think the Ravens have put themselves in position to have as good a chance to defend the title since the Packers and Broncos were at their peak," EPSN analyst Joe Theismann said. "Baltimore is a lot like Tiger Woods. They shot a great first round, but everyone now knows they're lurking to take the championship again."

The rest of the AFC Central has had lesser fanfare in free agency.

Besides the Ravens, only the Tennessee Titans signed an impact player. Still, despite obtaining defensive end Kevin Carter from the Rams, the Titans may have taken a slight step back.

They are without a fullback after releasing Lorenzo Neal and are carrying only four receivers, including one coming off a major knee injury (Kevin Dyson) and one (Chris Coleman) with minimal experience. From their top-ranked defense, they have lost three starters: end Kenny Holmes, cornerback Denard Walker and safety Marcus Robertson.

The Titans, though, seem optimistic after acquiring Carter, a 1999 All-Pro who had 10.5 sacks last season.

"It seems like everyone in the league was getting better. When we lost Kenny Holmes and Denard Walker, it seemed like we were getting worse," said Tennessee right tackle Fred Miller after the Carter deal. "Now with this piece of the pie, we've gotten a lot better."

The Pittsburgh Steelers had their usual go-round in free agency.

They lost some big names on defense in linebacker Levon Kirkland and defensive end Kevin Henry and only added safety Mike Logan. They stepped up to keep running back Jerome Bettis and are banking that free agent Jeff Hartings can replace longtime center Dermontti Dawson.

"It's a natural transformation that's taking place. It's an evolution of what you're trying to do with your team," Steelers coach Bill Cowher recently told Pittsburgh reporters. "Unfortunately, sometimes losing popular players becomes part of that process."

With the Jacksonville Jaguars, it was more of an exodus than an off-season.

To clear the largest cap surplus in the eight years of free agency, the Jaguars released 22 players in late February and early March. Gone from the season-ending two-deep chart are five starters, nine backups and punter/holder Bryan Barker.

The only positive was the signing of quarterback Mark Brunell, who was in the final year of his contract. The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback signed a four-year, $30 million deal with an $8 million signing bonus on March 30.

"I know in '96, we didn't have the most talent in the world," said Brunell at his signing. "We just had a bunch of fighters. We had great chemistry. We got on a roll and got to the AFC championship game. Anything is possible. This team has the ability to go all the way. I believe that with all my heart."

Said Theismann: "I don't think Mark Brunell deserved as much money as Brett Favre, and they could wind up suffering. To me, maybe it's time to change capologists."

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