Ravens plan on shopping around

With pre-draft attention on pass rush, receiving, Sanders negotiations start

March 26, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

PHOENIX - After some careful spending in the first month of free agency, the Ravens are prepared to do some bargain hunting.

Team officials have targeted upgrades to their receiving corps and pass rush before the NFL draft on April 26-27. During the second day of the NFL owners' meetings, the Ravens had their first substantial round of contract talks with receiver Frank Sanders and have started looking at free-agent defensive ends and outside linebackers to revive a weak pass rush.

"Now the market has changed some, there are players out that will become more attractive to us," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who signed future Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sam Adams on draft day three years ago. "Now, as a lot of people are saying that they're going to shut it down up until the draft, we kind of crank it up a little bit during this period of time. The market is a little fairer to us."

The Ravens remain optimistic about landing Sanders, the former Arizona Cardinal who is considered the best available receiver on the market.

Receiver is one of the team's most inexperienced positions. Travis Taylor (61 receptions) is the only returning wide-out who caught more than 10 passes last season.

But the Ravens are also focused on increasing their pressure on the opposing quarterback. Last year, the team failed to collapse the pocket with injured end Michael McCrary missing most of the season and finished with 33 sacks, the 10th lowest in the league.

The Ravens have had initial talks with a handful of free-agent pass rushers but declined to identify anyone at this stage.

The agent for San Francisco's Chike Okeafor confirmed that the Ravens had exploratory talks about the defensive end on Friday. Okeafor, 26, had six sacks last year in his first season as a full-time starter.

The other top pass rushers are New Orleans linebacker Charlie Clemons and Green Bay defensive end Vonnie Holliday.

Clemons, 30, had half a sack last year after registering 13 1/2 in 2001. Although he played on the inside with the Saints, he has told teams that he is open about moving to the outside.

Holliday, 27, has had at least five sacks in all five of his NFL seasons. He reportedly has contract offers from Arizona and Seattle and is scheduled to visit Kansas City.

Former Cleveland linebackers Jamir Miller and Dwayne Rudd are also available.

"We need to improve our ability to get to the passer," Newsome said. "That's an area we have to address because I don't know if we can address it the way we want to in the draft."

The other order of business this offseason is to add a veteran quarterback. The Ravens, who are expected to draft a quarterback in the first three rounds, are planning to sign an experienced quarterback in June, which is the start of the second phase of free agency.

In evaluating their first month of free agency, the Ravens are more than satisfied about their selective signings. They have committed over $13 million of this year's $75 million salary cap on retaining cornerback Chris McAlister (franchise player), guard Edwin Mulitalo, linebacker Cornell Brown and offensive tackle Ethan Brooks as well as acquiring cornerback Corey Fuller, offensive tackle Orlando Brown and special teams ace Harold Morrow.

Last year, the Ravens lost 11 starters in their historic cap slash and didn't sign a free agent until April 24, when they brought in quarterback Jeff Blake.

"There are some teams you can say hit some home runs, but we didn't go into this trying to hit home runs," Newsome said. "We just wanted to be able to augment our team with some quality free agents. That's what we've done.

"I'm pleased. It wasn't going to be a bonanza for the Ravens in free agency."

The only potential big hit for the Ravens was receiver David Boston. But the Ravens refused to match the guaranteed money offered by the San Diego Chargers because of Boston's injury and legal troubles.

In hindsight, the Ravens would attack this year's free-agent class just as cautiously.

"I think we've done very, very well," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "The key to free agency is you have to recognize what the market is. With very few exceptions, there was really no standout, guaranteed free-agent signing. We are a better team today than we were at the end of the season. I'm convinced of that with the additions we've made. And we're going to make a couple more because of the judicious nature we've gone about it.

"With our sum composite at the end, people are going to be able to look at that and say, `They've done a good job in the offseason.' It may not be the huge splash that everybody hopes for, but I don't know who that would be. Sorry, it didn't exist this year."

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