Cool winds of expectation blow for draftees


Heap, Baxter, Rabach due bigger roles next fall

Allen, Cunningham ask to return



January 22, 2002|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

The analysis can soon begin.

Ravens management asked judgment of last year's draft class to be held off due to the veteran makeup of the roster.

But since the season and probably the careers of a number of Ravens ended in Sunday's 27-10 playoff loss at Pittsburgh, the time is fast approaching for the 2001 rookie class to assert itself.

It will start with the team's off-season program, where the top three picks, tight end Todd Heap, defensive back Gary Baxter and center Casey Rabach, all said they would spend part if not all spring in Baltimore.

All three could be called upon to start next season because of expected turnover at their respective positions. Tight end Shannon Sharpe may retire, opening the door for Heap, and the Ravens may not be able to keep safety Rod Woodson or re-sign free-agent safety Corey Harris. The team may also look to revamp the right side of the offensive line.

"They will contribute a lot," Ozzie Newsome, Ravens senior vice president of football operations, said of the top three picks. "Whether they will be starters, you just can't tell. Woodson and Shannon have to determine what they want to do. Rod said he wants to come back and play. But I think they [the one-year veterans] will be more significant contributors with the potential of being starters."

None of the three achieved such high stature this season. Heap, the team's first-round pick out of Arizona State, saw the most extensive time.

He played in 12 games, starting six in the Ravens' two-tight end set, and recorded 16 catches for 206 yards and a touchdown.

Sharpe, 33, will decide whether to retire within the next month, and if he chooses to do so or the Ravens are forced to cut him because of salary-cap problems, Heap's game action makes him the draft pick most ready to slide into the starting lineup. "I don't know, we'll see next year," Heap said. "I can't really speculate on it, but I'm going to do everything I can to improve in the off-season."

Baxter and Rabach were not as fortunate as Heap. Baxter, the team's second-round pick out of Baylor, was inactive the first eight games of the season in part because of a knee injury in training camp.

He was limited to special teams in six of the last eight games and both playoff games. Still, Baxter would be a prime candidate to fill one of what could be three open positions in the secondary. Cornerback Duane Starks is also a free agent, and with the Ravens $20.5 million over the salary cap, keeping Woodson, Starks and Harris would be virtually impossible.

Baxter was a cornerback in college, but was used primarily as a safety and a nickel back with the Ravens in practice. "We got a chance to see Gary on special teams, where he's big [6-2, 204], fast and can tackle," Newsome said. "And that is where our defense has been built. We can find a place for that, whether it is at corner or safety."

Which one would depend on who leaves the secondary.

"I don't have any preference because I learned all the positions in the defensive backfield," Baxter said. "My main thing is just to get on the field any kind of way. Whichever position that is, I'll be happy with it. I was the second-round draft pick, and I do see that I have a big opportunity next year, regardless of whomever they sign back."

Rabach, the team's third-round pick, did not make an appearance in any game this season and was only active for the opener. The Ravens, though, have offensive line woes and could look to Rabach to compete at right guard with Kipp Vickers. Rabach spent the majority of this season practicing at center, but played both positions at Wisconsin.

"Now Rabach has the system," Newsome said. "That gives us the flexibility where he could be our center and [current center Mike] Flynn could go back to guard. We've got some flexibility now to make sure we get the best five players on the field."

The bottom half of the draft actually produced much in special teams. Fourth-round pick Ed Hartwell played in every game this season and finished with nine tackles. Joe Maese, the sixth-round pick, did all the long-snapping the first 15 games before tearing knee ligaments.

"When I look at the long term of the players we have, I think we had an excellent draft," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Looking at the top three, those guys are going to be very good football players."

Allen, Cunningham open to '02

Running back Terry Allen and quarterback Randall Cunningham enjoyed life with the Ravens so much, they are willing to give it another go.

Both entered this season convinced it would be their last but have since changed their minds.

The Ravens signed Allen, 33, after starting running back Jamal Lewis tore up his knee in training camp. Allen led the team with 658 rushing yards.

"I had fun, so yeah, I want to come back now," said Allen, who just completed his 12th season. "At the beginning of the year, I definitely didn't want to come back, win, lose or draw. But the guys make you want to come back."

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