Ravens aim to rebuild in a hurry

Billick: Drastic cuts now set up team for strong run in '03 or '04

This year's draft pivotal

In roster overhaul, team pins its hopes on young holdovers

March 12, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Two weeks after dismantling a Super Bowl team faster than anyone before, the Ravens believe they can rebuild one in record time.

By gutting their roster of 11 starters this off-season, the Ravens expect to be significantly under the salary cap next season and aim to be primed for another run at the title in 2004.

In years past, teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Jacksonville Jaguars and Dallas Cowboys have tried to extend their windows of opportunity for a championship by constantly finagling around the salary cap, which eventually landed them in "cap jail" for several years.

But the Ravens plan to break free after a one-year sentence, cutting their high-priced, 30-something veterans all in the same season and starting fresh with younger, less-expensive talent. While the franchise has taken national ribbing for this massive overhaul, the Ravens say they'll have the last laugh.

"When we get through this year and get into 2003, you may have a better appreciation for our orchestration of the cap," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Yes, there's going to be some challenges for us. But we believe we have intelligently structured so that it's all going to hit this year. If we stay true to our course here, we will be in phenomenal shape in 2003 and 2004."

Said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' senior vice president of football operations: "We will probably be in as good a cap situation as we've been in the six years we've been in Baltimore."

Reaching that promising future means surviving a ragged present.

Slicing $26 million to get under the salary cap by March 1, the Ravens were forced to part ways with 15 veterans, which left them with a roster in flux. The club is looking to extend the contracts of its Pro Bowl core - linebackers Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden - but may have to surround them with as many as eight first-year starters.

Instead of having Shannon Sharpe at tight end and Rod Woodson at free safety, the team will be counting on Todd Heap and Gary Baxter. Instead of Jamal Lewis following the lead blocking of fullback Sam Gash, he may be running behind Alan Ricard.

How far the Ravens go in the 2002 season likely will hinge on the maturation of those younger players. Of the 35 players on their depleted 53-man roster, only 10 have started a full NFL season.

"In no way, shape or form am I intimating we are dismissing the 2002 season," Billick said. "But we are going to be young. We are going to be athletic, faster. There is a great deal of energy that comes with that. But with youth also comes mistakes. And those mistakes cost you. But that's what we're trying to coach them through.

"How good does that mean we'll be this year? I've got no idea."

To clear up that uncertainty, the Ravens have to find out if untested draft picks like quarterback Chris Redman, linebacker Ed Hartwell and center Casey Rabach can play now.

While the Ravens want Redman to become the starter, they likely will sign either Randall Cunningham or Chris Chandler as a veteran backup in June. The team is expected to add a third quarterback from the draft.

Hartwell is slated to be an inside linebacker alongside Lewis in the team's new 3-4 defensive scheme, and Rabach could become the starting center with a strong training camp, bumping Mike Flynn back to right guard.

"What's to say that those guys can't ascend in a hurry because they've been here and the system is familiar with them?" Newsome said. "Maybe that developmental curve can be shortened because they've already been here and have been around very good veteran mentors in the locker room."

Drafting a blueprint

For the Ravens to rebound, they need to maintain their success in the draft.

When the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV, 12 of their 22 starters that night were drafted by the organization. Next month's draft is shaping up as the Ravens' most critical since the franchise arrived here in 1996.

"Like Bill Walsh told me two years ago, there are five players out on the college campuses that will start for the San Francisco 49ers and I don't know who they are," Newsome said. "More than likely, the players we choose in this year's draft will have the opportunity to come and play just like when we drafted Boulware, [Jamie] Sharper and [Kim] Herring."

The Ravens are looking to draft a right tackle, a wide receiver and a defensive lineman in the first three rounds. With the possibility of gaining compensatory picks for losing Herring, Priest Holmes and Jeff Mitchell last year, the team could have as many as 10 selections for a projected deep draft.

But the Ravens, who drafted so expertly in the top 10 from 1996 to 2000, have an added challenge of picking an impact player at No. 24.

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