Mason makes move up Ravens' wish list

Former Titan considered only impact wide-out left heading into free agency

Pro Football

February 28, 2005|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Three days before the official start of free agency, the Ravens have watched the prospective pool of impact receivers nearly dry up.

With playmakers such as Randy Moss, Muhsin Muhammad and Jerry Porter already gone, the Ravens' depleted wish list presumably is topped by Derrick Mason.

A salary-cap cut by the Tennessee Titans, Mason is widely considered the only difference-maker at receiver heading into free agency. Ravens officials spoke with Mason's agent yesterday, but no visit has been scheduled.

If the Ravens fail to land Mason, they would be forced to fill their front-line receiver void with career No. 2 wide-outs such as T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Rod Gardner or Plaxico Burress.

Despite this pressing need, the Ravens historically have never been a team to make an early splash in free agency.

"Necessity's a poor negotiator," coach Brian Billick said Friday at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. "You want to ease your way into it and see how the thing pans out [and] what the market is. [But] we will be very aggressive."

An aggressive approach may be the only way the Ravens will be able to sign Mason.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are reportedly the early front-runners for Mason, given their favorable salary-cap situation ($16 million under) and the fact that Mason's receivers coach, Steve Walters, joined the Jaguars' staff this offseason.

Along with the Ravens, who are approximately $15 million under the cap, the Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals are expected to join the pursuit of Mason.

A two-time Pro Bowl player, Mason is the type of consistent receiver the Ravens are desperately seeking. He led the Titans in receptions the past four seasons, including 95 catches in 2003 and 96 last season.

The only concerns are his age (he turned 31 last month) and his size (5 feet 10, 190 pounds).

"We're just in the process of sorting through the interested teams and we're just fielding offers," Mason told the Chattanooga Times Free Press yesterday. "I'd like to get something done as quickly as possible. Hopefully by Thursday or Friday, we can have something done, if not before then."

Besides a market-value contract - Muhammad received $12 million guaranteed on a six-year deal and Porter got $7 million guaranteed on a five-year contract - Mason said he has other criteria for his next team.

"I just want to go to a team where I can have a chance to win for the next four or five years. I want to go where they can compete every year," Mason said. "It would be bad to go somewhere for the next four or five years and not have a chance to win a championship."

Besides Mason, the only other attractive option is soon-to-be Bengals free agent T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Known for having some of his best games against the Ravens, Houshmandzadeh set a career high with 73 catches last season. But there are some concerns whether Houshmandzadeh would struggle as the lead receiver because he has had only one productive year.

The same questions surround the Pittsburgh Steelers' Plaxico Burress, who has had the benefit of playing beside Hines Ward. But one NFL personnel executive said he would be surprised if the Ravens would pursue Burress, considering they already have athletic, high-jumping receivers in Clarence Moore and Randy Hymes.

"Clarence Moore is the same as Plaxico Burress, just without the big name," the executive said.

Outside free agency, the only two receivers on the trading block are both from the Washington Redskins, Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said he has talked with the Redskins about Gardner, but based on the team's track record, the Ravens probably wouldn't be willing to give up more than a fourth-round draft pick for him. Washington reportedly wants a second-round selection.

In the worst scenario, one in which the Ravens can't sign any wide-out from the top couple of tiers, they could trade up into the top half of the first round for one of the draft's top three receivers (Southern California's Mike Williams, Michigan's Braylon Edwards and South Carolina's Troy Williamson).

That likely would mean adding a lower-end veteran such as Joey Galloway or Cedrick Wilson to provide experience for a Ravens receiving corps that has no one older than 25.

Sun staff writers Ken Murray and Mike Preston contributed to this article.

Available receivers

Top tier

Derrick Mason

Status: Free agent (released by the Titans)

Age: 31

Height/weight: 5 feet 10/190 pounds

Three-year average: 90 catches, 1,161 yards, 6.7 TDs

Positive: Is the best leader and most consistent receiver remaining in the bunch.

Negative: Receivers under 6 feet have struggled in the Ravens' system (see Kevin Johnson, Brandon Stokley and Patrick Johnson).

Laveranues Coles

Status: On trading block (with Redskins)

Age: 27

Height/weight: 5-11/193

Three-year average: 87 catches, 1,139 yards, 4 TDs

Positive: His speed would force defenses to respect the vertical game.

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