Ravens will be drafting for future, not present

April 21, 2001|By Mike Preston

IT'S PROJECT TIME for the Ravens today in the NFL draft.

The Ravens' game plan is to find role or special teams players for the 2001 season who might develop into starters in three or four years.

You weren't expecting another Jonathan Ogden or Chris McAlister, were you? The Ravens have the last pick in each round.

So this is the most likely scenario today: The Ravens need a right guard, but the best one, Michigan's Steve Hutchinson, will be gone by the time they select No. 31 overall. They will then look to see if Detroit or New Orleans hasn't swallowed up tight ends Todd Heap of Arizona State or Alge Crumpler of North Carolina.

If they aren't available, try Arizona State safety Adam Archuleta.

If he isn't available, try a wide receiver. If no receiver, go to a running back.

"Best player left on the board then," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel. "We're not going to sweat it."

Neither Heap, Crumpler nor Archuleta is an immediate impact player, but each fits the Ravens' mold.

We're talking about a first-round pick who'll take about 250 to 300 snaps this season and possibly become a starter in 2003. We're talking about middle- to late-round selections who will play special teams only.

On a team poised and paid for another strong Super Bowl run, the future is now.

"You can get an impact player in the seventh round, if it's the right guy," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "Being a Super Bowl team, it would be ambitious to think we were going to come up with a starter at 31. This draft should yield to us second- and third-level players to fill out the 43-to-53-man spots on the roster."

The prime-time spots are already taken, most of those from studs taken in the previous drafts when the Ravens selected in the top 10 and came away such players as Ogden, an offensive tackle, cornerbacks Duane Starks and McAlister, running back Jamal Lewis and linebacker Peter Boulware.

But the Ravens know they are on a crash course with the salary cap. They were fortunate to sign quarterback Elvis Grbac and offensive tackle Leon Searcy, and re-sign outside linebacker Jamie Sharper and guard/tackle Harry Swayne during the off-season, but the Ravens have several key players headed to free agency within the next two years.

Among them are punter Kyle Richardson, safety Corey Harris, receivers Patrick Johnson and Brandon Stokley, McAlister, Starks, Boulware and guard Edwin Mulitalo.

And then there is the graybeard gang who might retire: safety Rod Woodson (currently unsigned), defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, defensive end Rob Burnett and Swayne.

Billick would like this year's draft crop to mesh with young starters such as Jamal Lewis, receiver Travis Taylor, Mulitalo, Starks, McAlister and other up-and-coming players like cornerback Clarence Love, safety Anthony Poindexter, receivers Marcus Nash and Germany Thompson, defensive end Adalius Thomas, tight end John Jones and quarterback Chris Redman.

During their first two seasons in Baltimore, the Ravens stumbled finding mid-round success stories. But overall, they have discovered eventual starting players in the mid-to-late rounds like Mulitalo, receiver Jermaine Lewis, center Jeff Mitchell and outside linebacker Cornell Brown.

They'll have to find more of those type players today. By the middle rounds, the Ravens will be looking at outside linebackers like USC's Markus Steele, Syracuse's Morlon Greenwood and Fresno State's Orlando Huff. They still need a running back to back up Jamal Lewis, and the list of candidates should include Michigan's Anthony Thomas, Miami's James Jackson and Auburn's Rudi Johnson.

The Ravens need depth on the offensive line and like mid- to late-round picks such as LSU tackle Brandon Winey and guards Matt Light of Purdue and Bernard Robinson of Tulane.

But whomever they draft, the Ravens are taking a risk by using them on special teams. Mid- to lower-round rookies will make less per year than the veterans the Ravens had last season like receiver Billy Davis, linebacker O. J. Brigance and defensive tackle Keith Washington.

"We have maintained the integrity of our defense," Billick said. "I would say we have improved our offense by signing a Searcy and a Grbac. But when that happens, something has to give. Nothing remains the same.

"We've got to make this fit, make it work," he said of the possible new faces. "We're going to need the younger guys to step up. We have enough guys from last year, combined with this year's group, that we should be all right. It's athleticism of this year on special teams compared to the experience of last year. When you either sign or re-sign first-level guys, you lose out on the second- and third-level guys. We'll work with what we have."

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