Wide-out routes come into focus

Ravens' Receiver Search

Through free agency or trade, the Ravens have several options as they attempt to fill their biggest offseason need: a veteran receiver with big-play ability.

February 23, 2005|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

As the NFL free-agent market continues to take shape, the Ravens' offseason focus couldn't be clearer: They desperately need a veteran wide receiver.

How the Ravens acquire a playmaker in the passing game is still up in the air.

Coach Brian Billick indicated yesterday that the Ravens are keeping their options open as far as signing a free-agent receiver or trading for one. He said the team completed its most detailed analysis of free agency in his seven years here but acknowledged later that a trade is a "real" option.

If the Ravens decide to pursue a free-agent receiver, their top choices likely would be Derrick Mason, Muhsin Muhammad and Plaxico Burress. If they opt for a trade, they could come away with the Washington Redskins' Laveranues Coles or Minnesota Vikings' Randy Moss.

Billick said the Ravens have an interest in Mason, a salary cap casualty of the Tennessee Titans on Monday and the only free agent he can comment on under league rules. The other players won't officially become free agents until next Wednesday, when they can sign with other teams.

Mason, 31, led all NFL wide receivers last season with a career-high 96 catches for 1,168 yards and seven touchdowns. In improving his receptions the past four seasons, he has averaged 86 catches, 1,153 yards and seven touchdowns during that span.

It would be a logical pairing given Mason's preference to sign with a playoff contender and the Ravens' need for a consistent downfield threat. Mason's agent, Lamont Smith, did not return phone calls.

"He's certainly a productive receiver, a class individual and a definite leader," Billick said of Mason. "He would certainly fit part of our criteria."

Muhammad and Burress could be joining Mason in free agency.

Muhammad, who led the NFL last season in receiving yards (1,405) and touchdown catches (16) with the Carolina Panthers, has a salary cap figure of $12.5 million. If his contract isn't restructured before March, the Panthers likely will have to release him to get under the cap.

Burress, who didn't receive the franchise tag yesterday from the Pittsburgh Steelers, is set to test the market after making 35 catches in an injury-marred season. Unlike the Oakland Raiders' Jerry Porter, Burress is not expected to sign a new deal before free agency begins.

The Ravens want to add experience to a young and developing receiving corps - Clarence Moore, Devard Darling and Randy Hymes - that has combined for 58 career catches and 15 starts.

Their passing attack, which finished 31st out of 32 teams, presumably will not be returning its top two receivers from last season. Kevin Johnson officially opted out of his contract yesterday, and Travis Taylor probably won't come back as an unrestricted free agent.

"To have a veteran presence and someone that can accept that leadership role would be a high priority for us," Billick said.

Billick, however, noted that free agency isn't the only way the Ravens can accomplish that.

"I've always said trading in today's game is very hard to do because of the [cap] acceleration of the contract. But I wouldn't rule that out," Billick said. "There are a couple of scenarios out there that are workable, and that's rare."

Billick wouldn't specifically name any players, but Coles and Moss are the two most prominent receivers rumored to be on the trading block. Talks could occur this week when team executives meet at the NFL rookie combine in Indianapolis.

The Redskins reportedly are looking to shop the disgruntled Coles to the team of his choice if he forfeits a portion of his signing bonus. Coles has become frustrated with Washington's lack of a deep passing game despite catching a career-best 90 passes last season.

Regarding Moss, prospective new Vikings owner Reggie Fowler said Monday that he isn't interested in trading one of the most dynamic receivers in the game. But league sources said there is still a chance the Vikings could deal Moss to the Ravens, the Atlanta Falcons, the New York Jets or the Dallas Cowboys.

Asked whether it's viable to think that the Ravens could pull off a trade, Billick said: "It's a very real one, probably more so than it has been in the past. This year seems to be more potential for that. Does that mean there is a higher chance of us doing that or not? I can't say."

NOTES: For the first time in three seasons, the Ravens did not use their franchise tag. They had named Chris McAlister as their franchise player in 2003 and 2004 to keep the cornerback off the free-agent market before agreeing to a new deal in October. "It's not a good thing to do," Billick said. "It irritates the athlete and creates an uncomfortable relationship. If it's something we can avoid, we will." ... The Ravens allocated four players to NFL Europe: defensive lineman Cedric Hilliard (Frankfurt), outside linebacker Josh Buhl (Berlin) and cornerbacks Zach Norton (Hamburg) and Jermaine Winborne (Cologne).

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