New teams for Starks and Ismail

Cornerback signs with Cards

receiver heads for Colts

Ravens pinched by cap

Pair are first starters from 2001 team to sign elsewhere

March 19, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

ORLANDO, Fla. - The NFL meetings quickly turned into a Ravens farewell party.

In what has been a slow and stingy free-agent market, the Ravens could only watch as their top priority, cornerback Duane Starks, and their leading receiver, Qadry Ismail, signed lucrative deals with different teams within hours of each other yesterday afternoon.

The Ravens attempted to talk Starks into waiting until the team could free up some salary cap room in a couple of months, but he didn't pass up a five-year, $23 million deal from the Arizona Cardinals that includes a $5 million signing bonus. Ismail, the Ravens' all-time leading receiver, agreed to a three-year contract worth about $4 million ($1.25 million signing bonus) with the Indianapolis Colts and could collect an additional $1.5 million in incentives.

The Ravens, who are just $1.1 million under the cap with 35 players under contract, were handcuffed financially to outbid those teams for Starks and Ismail, the first starters from last year's team to sign elsewhere.

"It's the same story line over and over again," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It's very frustrating, especially when you lose a young, 27-year-old guy like Duane. We thought we were moving toward establishing some parameters, but it's hard working under the disadvantage that you can't actively pursue your guys."

Starks' choice came down to signing with the Cardinals now or holding off for the Ravens. The Oakland Raiders and the Detroit Lions had ended talks over the weekend.

The Ravens believed the teaming of Starks with fellow cornerback Chris McAlister would be a strong foundation in their rebuilding efforts.

Considered the top cover man available, Starks struggled at times last season, but his 20 interceptions are tied with Rod Woodson for the most in Ravens history. Starks, the Ravens' first-round pick in 1998, will mostly be remembered for picking off four passes in six playoff games, including running one back 49 yards for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXV.

"It'll be a change for me, but change is good in most cases," Starks said. "It'll be interesting to see how things turn out in Arizona. The sad part is leaving a team I played four years with. I'm sad about the salary cap issues, but they could not get me what I need."

His big-play ability is the reason the Ravens made such a concerted last-ditch effort to hold onto Starks. On Sunday, the Ravens' top brass - owner Art Modell, senior vice president Ozzie Newsome and Billick - met with Starks' agent, Drew Rosenhaus, to discuss a plan for Starks to stay.

But the Cardinals, who are reportedly $12.5 million under the cap, bumped the Ravens out of the picture with a contract that will pay $3.6 million in base salary in 2002.

"The idea was we were very close to getting a deal done with the Cardinals and we were taking a stab at it," Rosenhaus said. "They just said, `Look, we need more time.' We didn't have it."

The Ravens are looking to free up cap space by June by restructuring the contracts of linebackers Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware as well as defensive end Michael McCrary. If the team cannot rework McCrary's deal, he most likely will be released.

Does Rosenhaus think the Ravens could have matched Arizona's deal in June?

"They said that they were going to try," he said. "But that's such a hypothetical. There is so many things that could happen. Arizona is a good up-and-coming team, and Duane was very impressed with them. We couldn't afford to wait."

To fill that void at left cornerback, the Ravens have discussed starting Gary Baxter, a second-round pick from 2001 who was projected to play safety in the NFL.

"It's a possibility," Billick said. "We're a long way from establishing the identity of this team. We still have the draft and June coming up."

Ismail, 31, led the Ravens last season with 72 catches and seven touchdowns. But the nine-year veteran faded down the stretch, making just two catches for 24 yards in the playoffs.

Although the Ravens were considering the possibility of bringing him back, he didn't seem to fit the team's youth movement. The Ravens have Travis Taylor and Brandon Stokley as receivers right now and are expected to draft another wide-out next month.

Ismail will battle Reggie Wayne, a 2001 first-round draft pick, to be the Colts' No. 2 receiver alongside Pro Bowl wide-out Marvin Harrison.

"Qadry and I go way back, but it's a good opportunity for Qadry," said Billick, who coached Ismail from 1993 to 1996 in Minnesota. "There again, that's a deal that clearly is something within the parameters of what we might have been able to do but we can't do now. It's the same scenario over and over. That's the price we're going to pay right now."

Besides losing Ismail and Starks, the Ravens officially parted ways with receiver Patrick Johnson, their second-round bust from 1998. Inactive for the final 12 games last season, the oft-injured Johnson signed a one-year contract worth $575,000 with Jacksonville.

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