No longer hollow sound to Ravens' rebuilding

August 02, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

AFTER ONE OF the worst off-seasons in recent NFL history, there is finally some light in the Ravens' immediate future. Say goodbye to the dark, ominous clouds, and hello to better days.

When the Ravens announced yesterday that Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis had agreed to a seven-year contract worth $50 million, including a $19 million signing bonus, it showed that the team was, indeed, serious about rebuilding another Super Bowl-contending team.

The run won't happen this year, or probably next, but the Ravens now have their cornerstones in place for several more years, with Lewis and Pro Bowl left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden under contract.

There had been whispers that owner Art Modell didn't want to pay out big money to players because Steve Bisciotti would assume full control of the team in two years.

But Lewis' signing bonus is the highest ever, replacing the $18 million paid out to Minnesota Vikings receiver Randy Moss almost a year ago.

"It's a statement not about building a playoff team, but a Super Bowl-caliber team," said Lewis. "Despite a bare market, both owners wanted to move in this direction. Now, when other players' contracts are up, they will look here, not necessarily because of money, but because they know this team is serious about winning."

The Ravens had talked about rebuilding the team ever since they dumped seven starters and their top two receivers during the off-season because of salary-cap issues.

But now they have substance by re-signing the team's best player. The most serious run is set for 2005. That's when the contracts of head coach Brian Billick, senior vice president of football operations Ozzie Newsome and president David Modell's are to expire, even though Newsome's extension hasn't been finalized yet.

Even Lewis' deal, according to a team source, is actually for four years. The contract is back-loaded in the final three years with such enormous salary numbers that the Ravens will be forced to renegotiate.

"As the chairman, I want to turn this team over to Steve Bisciotti in the best shape possible," said Art Modell. "I don't want to leave this team in cap jail or bereft of players. In two years, if you go position by position, we should be in pretty good shape.

"Ray Lewis is the best middle linebacker I've ever seen," said Modell. "We have to make him a happy camper. Now that we've got this guy, we'll get Boulware [outside Pro Bowl linebacker Peter Boulware] done, too. Now we can become selective in our free agents and improve as a team."

With Lewis' deal done, the Ravens have about $1 million to $1.5 million of cap room. They want to rebuild their defense first, which makes sense, especially the way the offense has struggled so far in training camp.

The Ravens have an interest in free agent inside linebackers Bernardo Harris, Robert Jones, Sam Rogers and former Raven Cornell Brown, even though Brown's off-the-field problems here have drawn concerns from Newsome. The team also likes safety Eric Brown.

Newsome confirmed that the team's top priority would be to re-sign Pro Bowl tackle Sam Adams, who has the quickest first step of any defensive lineman in the league. It's a wise move. If you're going to invest all of this money in Lewis, you might as well hire a body guard. Rookie tackle Tony Weaver, out of Notre Dame, isn't going to survive a 16-game schedule.

But the Ravens need to be careful. Adams' deal should be for only one to two years. He is 29 with a history of knee problems. If, or whenever, they sign him, it's going to take him at least three weeks to get into playing shape.

"He is running, lifting and staying in pretty good shape," said Roosevelt Barnes, Adams' agent, who also represents Lewis and Boulware.


Who does Barnes think he's kidding? Despite being unemployed, one of the happiest men in America is Adams because he doesn't have to attend training camp. But a moody, one-legged Adams is still better than Weaver at this time.

"Yeah, they've got to get Sam in here," said Lewis. "That guy takes our defense to another entire level by himself. They need to re-sign as many of the core group as possible. I think they are pretty close with Peter."

The Ravens need to sign Boulware, but with a stipulation. If he wants $10 million to $12 million to sign, they should demand that he spend his off-season in Baltimore working out with team trainers. Boulware has been one of the league's top pass rushers since his rookie season in 1997, but he has also been injury prone. A stronger weightlifting program and stricter supervision might produce more bulk, and fewer injuries.

The offensive options include fullback Sam Gash and receiver Antonio Freeman, even though the word out of Green Bay is that Freeman can no longer run as well as he did.

But at least now the Ravens have options. The addition of Adams, Gash, Jones, Freeman or any combination might result in two more wins. A six-win season from this outfit wouldn't be bad.

Nearly a week ago, Lewis said if he took the Ravens to the Super Bowl again it would put him in a class with Muhammad Ali. It sounded arrogant, but you really have to understand the mentality of Lewis. His work ethic is nearly impossible to match, and he strongly believes he will be called the best player ever when he retires.

The guy is a mutant who calls Baltimore his home. The Ravens are his team now, and for at least four more years.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.