Ravens: lots of room for rookies

With spots to fill, team hopes to find gems among undrafted free agents

April 23, 2002|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

If they wish, the Ravens' rookies could stage a mutiny and forgo the usual training camp rites-of-passage rituals demanded by the veterans.

There surely will be enough rookies to do so.

After selecting 10 players in the NFL draft this past weekend, the Ravens will bring in more than 30 undrafted free agents this week. All are expected to be present for this weekend's minicamp, and the team will release the names of the players once contracts are finalized.

At least one of those players might have to assume a major role with the club, and as many as 13 could make the roster. Six first-year or rookie free agents made the Week 1 roster or practice squad last season.

"Just by the sheer number of rookie free agents that we've signed, we've got a pretty good chance, just by odds, of a couple of these guys hitting," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

"We were busy [Sunday night and yesterday], and it was very fruitful. There are going to be some free-agent rookies that we have signed, whose names a lot of people aren't going to recognize, that are going to make an impact on this team."

A look back at the Ravens' rookie free-agent history shows that the team has been able to find productive players, most notably former running back Priest Holmes, former defensive tackle Lional Dalton and center Mike Flynn.

Holmes came out of Texas in 1997 and became the Ravens' first 1,000-yard rusher in 1998. He signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs last year and led the NFL in rushing and total yards from scrimmage.

Flynn, a starter the past two seasons, came to the Ravens in 1997, and Dalton signed a year later. Dalton was a top backup the past four seasons, leading to a lucrative contract with the Denver Broncos this off-season.

Two rookie free agents contributed for the Ravens last season: cornerback Alvin Porter and guard Bennie Anderson. Porter was fourth on the team with 14 special teams tackles, and Anderson started 15 games.

Having only 35 players under contract as late as last week led a greater number of agents and players to contact the Ravens.

"After the Super Bowl season, obviously there wasn't a whole lot of interest because they had to look at it and say, `How am I going to make a Super Bowl roster?' So the caliber of the free agents that we were able to attract was limited," Billick said. "Even with that, we were able to come up with a Porter, a Bennie Anderson. This year, it was just the opposite. People were readily interested in coming to us."

Even if it meant taking less signing-bonus money. Rookie free agents are offered anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000 to sign with teams, but with the Ravens having to sign so many, the bonuses are not always as lucrative as what other teams can offer.

"In a year like this year, where we only have 35 players on the roster, the agents are smart enough to realize that they maybe can pass up a little upfront money from other teams to send their player here because they have a better chance of making the roster," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' senior vice president of football operations.

So the Ravens sorted through an extraordinary number of calls and highlight tapes the past couple of weeks.

"Just today I had to put about 25 tapes in the [trash] bin. You get flooded with a lot of information," said running backs coach Matt Simon. "The key is to try and digest it all and get the right guys. A lot of them are just guys that want an opportunity, that come from nowhere. Sometimes, they are pretty talented guys."

That is what the Ravens are banking on.

"I think we've been real fortunate with a Priest Holmes, Mike Flynn, Lional Dalton," said Phil Savage, the Ravens' director of college scouting. "All those guys were significant contributors."

NOTE: Three undrafted free agents who reportedly have agreed to Ravens contracts are Syracuse linebacker J.R. Johnson, Northwestern defensive lineman Salem Simon and Wisconsin-La Crosse long snapper Mike Kraemer.

Sun staff writer Jamison Hensley contributed to this article.

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