Don't sell Mason and Rolle short

On the Ravens

they could be Ravens for long haul

March 09, 2005|By MIKE PRESTON

ON PAPER, it appears receiver Derrick Mason and cornerback Samari Rolle are perfect stopgap players for the Ravens. Mason is 31 and Rolle is 28. But if you look a little closer, they could have successful careers in Baltimore that last longer than two to three years.

Both are close to the primes of their careers. Both are competitive and dominating. Both have reputations for being smart, which means they can play one or two more seasons after their skills start to fade, and both are perfect fits for the Ravens.

Despite an embarrassing episode that led to the departure of cornerback Gary Baxter at the end of last week, the Ravens have had a strong offseason in free agency because either the stars are aligned right, or the football gods are smiling down on them.

While Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome had final say on the Mason and Rolle deals, he didn't plan them. These players fell into the Ravens' laps much like tight end Todd Heap did in the first round of the 2001 draft.

In all honesty, the Ravens had to make a big splash with a cornerback after the negotiations with Baxter ended abruptly because of a reported lack of communication on both sides. After Baxter left, the Ravens wanted Washington cornerback Fred Smoot, but he wanted a signing bonus of $14 million to $15 million.

Once those talks ended, the Ravens were overjoyed that Rolle called. There were some concerns about his health in Kansas City days before visiting Baltimore, but he wasn't going to fail a physical here. If Rolle had been on crutches, or taken a physical in a wheelchair, the Ravens would have passed him because they needed some positive PR.

Yet, this could turn out so well.

Rolle is just more of a pure cornerback than Baxter, who could become a Pro Bowl player if he switched to safety. Their styles are different. Baxter is bigger, more physical, and was stronger in run support.

Rolle has superb cover skills, and unlike even some of the best cornerbacks, seldom loses the ball in flight. Because they have two cornerbacks who specialize in press or man-to-man coverage, the Ravens can still blitz often. But even more important is that Rolle will fit in with other key defensive players.

Last year, some of the younger Ravens were bothered by the lack of notoriety and recognition. They wanted just as much TV face time as star players such as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Deion Sanders. They were concerned about coming contract talks and if there was enough money available after new contracts were given to veterans like cornerback Chris McAlister and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden.

But Ravens coach Brian Billick won't have to worry about that with Rolle. He has been to the Pro Bowl. He has already had a couple of big pay days. The only thing missing is a Super Bowl ring.

There are questions surrounding Rolle's health. He occasionally missed games in Tennessee with ankle, knee and elbow injuries, and he has stenosis, which is the narrowing of the spinal column. Rolle has had two separate incidents regarding neck and spine injuries in his seven seasons as a Titan.

But overall, there seems to be no sign of him wearing down. In Billick's Club Med approach to practices and training camp, he might be able to stay healthy for the entire season.

Mason can become a huge hit in this town. It was a bit premature for Billick to say Mason was the best free-agent signing in the history of the team, but Mason could have the same impact as the guy who still holds the title, tight end Shannon Sharpe.

The Ravens haven't had an offensive leader since Sharpe left at the end of the 2001 season. Mason, who has 191 receptions during the past two seasons, has no fear of going over the middle. He'll draw double teams on passing plays and take the extra safety away from the line of scrimmage on runs.

He wants every pass thrown to him. He plays with a chip on his shoulder and doesn't back down from anything or anyone. Two days before the Titans were to play the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl of January 2000, Mason was involved in a fight with teammate Blaine Bishop at practice.

This wasn't one of those throw-one-punch, break-it-up kind of fights. It was toe-to-toe, Ali vs. Frazier in the middle of the field.

That's what this offense needs, a tough guy who can pat Kyle Boller or Clarence Moore on the back when they throw a bad pass or drop one, or jump in their faces when that happens, too. Forget all this kiss-kiss, pitty-pat stuff. The Ravens got a warrior on offense. Finally.

There are some who might question Mason's age, but it's not really an issue. He's like a Jimmy Smith or a Keenan McCardell. There are a lot of receivers in the NFL who get open because they have speed, but once they get older and the speed starts to fade, they fade as well.

Mason doesn't have blazing speed, but he gets open because he is savvy - smart enough to know where to find openings and sit in zone defenses, and recognize different man-to-man coverages.

He could be around for a while. So could Rolle. Instead of being the stopgap, free-agent players at the end of their careers, they have enough to sustain and be productive for more than just a few years.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.