Free agent Hardy to pay Ravens a visit

Budget limits aside, team likes linebacker

Pro Football

April 06, 2002|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Short on money yet long on ambition, the Ravens will continue their trend of wooing big-name free agents.

Up first will likely be former Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Kevin Hardy, who could visit the team's Owings Mills facility as early as next week.

Despite their much publicized salary cap problems, which led to the release of veterans Rob Burnett, Rod Woodson, Shannon Sharpe, Qadry Ismail and others, the Ravens still view themselves as an attractive destination for free agents and will entertain guests this spring much as they have in years past.

Hardy would be the first free agent to visit the Ravens, the only team in the NFL that has not signed anyone this off-season. The past two years, the Ravens have had at least one major free-agent signing (Sharpe in 2000, quarterback Elvis Grbac in 2001).

"We're beginning to move closer to that time where we can start to bring talent in," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Kevin is certainly someone who is on the market who we are very familiar with, having played him. I've always had a great deal of regard for him."

Hardy met with the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday and with the Pittsburgh Steelers late last month. The Cowboys are $5.6 million under the salary cap and are seriously considering signing Hardy, according to published reports.

But Hardy left Dallas yesterday morning without a deal, leaving the door open for the Ravens.

"I think the Ravens are interested in Kevin and he is interested in Baltimore," Ethan Lock, Hardy's agent, said.

Hardy suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the final nine games last season. Jacksonville released Hardy for salary cap purposes last month after a six-year career in which he recorded four 100 tackle-seasons and 28 1/2 sacks. Hardy made the Pro Bowl in 1999 when he posted a career-high 10 1/2 sacks, and had 5 1/2 sacks and 98 tackles last season before the injury.

"He's a good player, the second player taken overall in the [1996] draft," said Ozzie Newsome, Ravens senior vice president of football operations. "I think that speaks for itself.

"We just want to feel him out. You just never know."

The Ravens lost linebacker Jamie Sharper in the expansion draft to the Houston Texans, and top backup Brad Jackson signed with the Carolina Panthers. With the team switching to a 3-4 defense, Hardy could compete with Adalius Thomas at the other starting outside linebacker position opposite Peter Boulware. The Ravens also could move Hardy inside to play alongside Ray Lewis.

Hardy expects to be close to 100 percent at the start of training camp.

If the Ravens are to sign Hardy before June, the team will have to free up money by restructuring the contracts of Boulware, Lewis and end Michael McCrary.

For Boulware and Lewis, both in the final years of their contracts, that means singing long-term deals. For McCrary, it means reworking his current contract to lessen his more than $8 million reported salary cap hit. If the Ravens and McCrary fail to reach an agreement by June 1, the nine-year veteran likely will be released, though the two sides are making progress.

"It goes back to Peter, Ray, Michael playing ball with us a little bit," Billick said. "We hope that happens soon because it certainly causes a great deal of anxiety sitting here waiting. ... Again, that is not Michael or Peter or Ray's responsibility. I understand that. But it sure would be nice if we could get something like that done earlier so we could fill in some of these things ahead of time."

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