Ravens' top focus probably not Sapp

Defensive tackle likely to draw interest, but price would have to be right

February 14, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Although published reports have named the Ravens as the front-runners to sign Warren Sapp, the team apparently has not targeted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle as a priority when free agency begins next month.

The Ravens likely would show an interest in the seven-time Pro Bowl selection since the pairing would be a natural fit for both sides. Sapp probably would want to join a Super Bowl contender, and the Ravens' defense could use a penetrating force in the middle.

But Ravens officials, who repeatedly have said they would be prudent with their spending this offseason, probably would not be willing to give Sapp a contract on par with the league's elite defensive tackles. In fact, a league source said the Ravens may be equally intrigued with defensive lineman Gary Walker, who is expected to be released by the Houston Texans for salary cap reasons.

That's why no deal with the Ravens is expected to occur early in the free-agency period unless Sapp opts to take a less-than-premier contract.

Since Sapp is under contract with the Buccaneers until free agency begins March 3, league rules prohibit Ravens officials from commenting on him.

Speaking generally on the Ravens' plans in free agency, coach Brian Billick said, "We will evaluate everybody that has the potential to be out on the market and we'll adjust accordingly. We plan to be a player in the free-agency market, but how much in the high-priced free-agency market remains to be seen."

Sapp's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, declined to comment.

One of the most outspoken and high-priced players last season, Sapp earned $6.6 million in the final year of his contract, which was second only to the San Francisco 49ers' Bryant Young among defensive tackles.

At 31, Sapp is still considered a disruptive interior lineman who commands double teams, but he also appears to be on the downside of his career.

In his past eight seasons, he has averaged 47 tackles (including five for losses) and nine sacks. Last season, he managed just five sacks, the lowest total since his rookie season in 1995.

He was fined $50,000 for repeated antics directed at officials, including bumping one during a pregame warmup. Sapp responded by labeling NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the league office as "slave masters."

If the Ravens sign Sapp, they likely won't reconfigure from a 3-4 defense (three linemen and four linebackers) despite Sapp's playing all his NFL career in a 4-3 formation. He would be plugged into right end, where Marques Douglas started last season.

The Buccaneers are not optimistic about keeping Sapp, according to yesterday's St. Petersburg Times. Tampa Bay has the worst salary cap figure in the NFC and has glaring needs on offense and defense.

Meanwhile, the Ravens are expected to be constantly linked to free-agent rumors involving Sapp and 49ers receiver Terrell Owens because they are a league-best $24 million under the cap and have the most money to spend.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, it is believed the Ravens are the front-runners for Sapp considering his ties with former University of Miami teammate and Ravens All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis.

"I think Ray was doing a lot of recruiting at the Pro Bowl," Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen said.

Sun staff writer Brent Jones contributed to this article.

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