Trading up for receiver isn't on Ravens' agenda

Pro Football

April 18, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

LAST YEAR, conventional thinking was out, gambling was in. Now, it's the other way around. Once the high rollers around the NFL, the Ravens want to stay the course.

With the annual draft only a week away, the Ravens have the No. 51 overall selection, which virtually guarantees they won't be able to select Larry Fitzgerald of the University of Pittsburgh, Southern California's Mike Williams, Texas' Roy Williams or Washington's Reggie Williams, or any other wide receiver who can make an immediate, significant impact.

But the Ravens have pulled an about-face when it comes to possibly trading up high into the first round and acquiring their top need.

What happened?

Realism has set in. After gutting the team after the 2001 season, Ravens officials were saying they were prepared to make a serious Super Bowl run in 2004 and 2005. But apparently they are still a year away from being where they want to be.

The Ravens still have a shot at winning the title because they have enough talent to go on a late-season roll that could carry into the postseason.

But if they actually thought a receiver would be the difference in going to the 2005 Super Bowl, they would make the trade on draft day.

But it would be too pricey, costing them a second-round pick this year and a first-round pick in 2005 or 2006. It's a sound decision, but clearly it sends a message that runs counter to what the Ravens trumpeted most of last season and early into the offseason.

"To go from 51 to 32 to 33 or into the first round, that's a huge expense to give up if you want to move there," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "I would be hard-pressed to say I would trade my No. 1 pick next year. That could lead to drastically overpaying, which would hurt us in the future."

The Ravens still need another year to fully recover from the fallout of 2001. They need a big, dominant defensive lineman, a thumper at safety, help at right guard or tackle, depth (especially for nickel and dime defensive coverages) and, most of all, improved play at quarterback.

The latest may be the most important.

If quarterback Kyle Boller had played well as a rookie last season, receiver Terrell Owens might be in Baltimore instead of Philadelphia. If Boller were into his third or fourth season, the Ravens might be willing to gamble and move up to draft a receiver. Instead, Boller played only eight games before a torn quad muscle forced him to miss the second half.

Teams would have been forced to double up on Owens, if nothing more than just on the perception of what he has done and can do. Even if the Ravens could draft one of the top receivers in the first round, there would be no immediate fear or double teams. The opponents would simply put eight or nine defenders in the box against running back Jamal Lewis again, and dare the Ravens to beat them with their most proven weapon.

Plus, after Fitzgerald, the Williamses and perhaps Wisconsin's Lee Evans, there isn't much difference among the receivers left that may go in the second or third rounds.

"We will, as we have done in the past and with Boller last year, have a plan," Newsome said. "If a player gets into a certain area of the second round, we will know exactly what we will have to do to get this player. And we will have already called teams to alert them that we're willing to move up and what we're willing to give up."

So, if the Ravens take a receiver in the second round, it's at least a year-and-a-half project, which puts him within the same development framework as Boller, who still needs to work on his mechanics and delivery. But like the quarterback position, the Ravens haven't developed a receiver yet from prospects such as Travis Taylor, Brandon Stokley or Ron Johnson.

They might be able to pick up a veteran receiver in the second period of free agency, which begins June 1 - a Curtis Conway or an Antonio Freeman - but none who will have the immediate impact of an Owens.

The Ravens need another year. They brought in former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel as a special consultant to the offense, with the basic idea of developing Boller, but there is a good chance Fassel will be gone after this season.

The window of opportunity to win a Super Bowl title is getting smaller, and the Ravens have about two years remaining because inside linebacker Ray Lewis has damaged shoulders and Jamal Lewis has a reckless running style. It's hard to see Lewis rushing for more than 2,000 yards again this season, especially with him facing drug conspiracy charges in Atlanta.

The Ravens' situation is so desperate at receiver that a few weeks ago fans were looking at Dennis Northcutt, the Cleveland Browns' No. 3 receiver, as a savior if he became eligible for free agency and came to Baltimore.

But now it's out that the Ravens have at least another year to rebuild, another offseason to sign cornerback Gary Baxter and linebacker Ed Hartwell ,who become free agents after 2004. They still want one more shot at signing Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister to a long-term contract.

"If I thought we were one receiver away from winning the Super Bowl, if that was the case, I would have started playing golf right after we traded for Terrell Owens," Newsome said. "That's not the case."

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