Newsome: Slow, steady wins the race for Ravens

March 25, 2004|By Mike Preston

THE WINDOW FOR the first period of NFL free agency is about to close, and the Ravens haven't been active in the market. They still have a glaring need at wide receiver and lesser ones at defensive line and defensive back.

But as of yesterday morning, general manager Ozzie Newsome was smiling as he peered out of his window overlooking the team's practice fields. He is confident the Ravens will improve from a year ago, and that the receiver they're looking for might be available in the draft despite the Ravens' first pick being in the second round, No. 51 overall.

In the past, Newsome's motto has been "right player, right price." Now he has borrowed the University of Maryland's slogan, "Fear The Turtle."

"We've got eight Pro Bowl players coming back," Newsome said. "We've always been cautious, always moved at a turtle's pace. That same pace helped us sign free agents in the past such as Sam Adams, Sam Gash and Ben Coates.

"Sometimes, the deals that you don't make lead to other ones like when we didn't get Broderick Thomas, and then three weeks later signed Michael McCrary [in April 1997]."

Being low key and patient have always been two of Newsome's dominant characteristics. It comes from growing up in Birmingham, Ala., during the civil rights movement.

He understands the nervousness around town. The Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos have made big splashes in free agency, and to a lesser degree, so have the Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks and Oakland Raiders.

The Ravens failed in trying to sign receiver Terrell Owens and were never involved in serious negotiations with free-agent defensive tackles Warren Sapp and Gary Walker despite having the most salary cap room in the league.

So far, the team's offseason contributions have consisted of one front-page horror or comedy story after another, including the Jamal Lewis indictment and the Owens mess.

Have the Ravens bottomed out?

"We tried to sign the player [Owens] who we thought would immediately make an impact, the one who would address our major need," Newsome said. "We brought in [right tackle] Ephraim Salaam for a visit in case we couldn't re-sign Orlando Brown. We brought in [defensive end] Raylee Johnson for a visit if we couldn't re-sign Adalius Thomas.

"Our top priority has been retaining our players. History has shown that retaining your own players is better and more conducive to success over the long term than bringing in new players."

The Ravens have 39 players under contract (compared to 53 during the regular season), not including seven restricted free agents. It's basically the same team as last season, one that finished 10-7 after losing in a wild-card playoff game, but also a team that will be a year older.

"We have a lot of young guys on our team and I firmly believe they'll all get better because they just had another year in [coach] Brian Billick's system," said Newsome, whose Ravens were the second-youngest team in the NFL last season.

"We have re-signed our backup quarterback [Anthony Wright], and we now have two young quarterbacks who we feel we can win with. Kyle Boller is in his second year, and even though he played in only eight games as a rookie, eight games is a lot. We've added a coach like Jim Fassel to help teach Kyle, and if we can improve on the production from that position, we'll be much improved.

"The draft will provide us with the opportunity to improve our football team as it has done in the past eight years. We'll participate in the second period of free agency, and we'll look over cuts from other team's training camps. I'm confident we'll be a better team than a year ago."

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper agrees that the Ravens could find an impact receiver in the second round. He wouldn't have Owens' polish, but he could have an on-field presence for a team in need of a deep threat.

This year's receiver class is loaded with talented underclassmen such as Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald, Southern California's Mike Williams, Washington's Reggie Williams, Clemson's Derrick Hamilton, Louisiana State's Michael Clayton and Florida State's P.K. Sam.

The position already had a solid core of seniors in Texas' Roy Williams, Wisconsin's Lee Evans, Oklahoma State's Rashaun Woods and Virginia Tech's Ernest Wilford.

"It's the best position in the draft as far as overall talent," Kiper said. "I'm sure the Ravens can come away with a good-looking receiver. You also have to remember that Philadelphia, now that they have Owens, won't be using their first-round pick for a receiver. Neither will Miami, now that they signed David Boston.

"A lot of good receivers will be pushed down to the Ravens. They'll get one. Remember, [Owens] was a third-round pick. Isaac Bruce [of the St. Louis Rams] was a second-round pick."

Newsome is aware of that. But he also knows that it usually takes years to develop a receiver, just as much time as it takes to create a good quarterback or offensive lineman.

The Ravens would have preferred to have a proven receiver, but that's now history.

"Just because we're in the market for one doesn't mean we're going to take one with our first pick," Newsome said. "We've never drafted for pure need, and we aren't going to start now."

Since the early days of cash-flow problems when the Ravens had to settle for lesser free agents, the team has done well in the draft and free agency. So at this point, you have to give Newsome and Billick the benefit of the doubt.

They still have a long way to run between now and training camp in late July. The Ravens have been slow out of the gate, but they aren't too concerned about losing the race right now.

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