Ravens' offseason game plan lacks winning touch

On the Ravens

March 15, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

What's the game plan for this franchise? Only a few days into free agency, that's the burning question for the Ravens.

You can get excited about re-signing running back Jamal Lewis and adding defensive players like end Trevor Pryce and tackle Justin Bannan, but there are reasons for concern.

The Ravens haven't upgraded. In fact, they haven't made one single addition to improve a team that finished 6-10 last season, the most disappointing season in franchise history. The offense is still the same, the one that was ranked No. 24 in the NFL. The defense has gotten worse, losing two starting linemen - end Tony Weaver and tackle Maake Kemoeatu - who were entering the primes of their careers.

Kemoeatu was supposed to be the top priority for the Ravens among their own unrestricted free agents, and he catches a plane to Carolina and doesn't come back. Weaver agreed to a deal with the Houston Texans.

What gives?

"We're just trying to win," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said from Naples, Fla., where he attended a meeting of the league's competition committee.

OK, that's great. Next question is when? Are they trying to win next season, or is this franchise in a rebuilding mode?

There's a popular theory circulating that the Ravens know they have too many holes to fill in one season, so they've written off 2006 with Brian Billick as the lame duck coach. You don't want to subscribe to such a notion, but after seeing who is leaving, and who is coming in, you start wondering.

Hmmm. What is going on?

Or a more reasonable theory is that the Ravens got ambushed in free agency. With the new salary cap in place, no one knew what the market was going to be like. There is a lot of money being thrown around, way too much compared with previous years.

Kemoeatu is a good run stopper, but no one expected him to get a $27.5 million deal. Weaver got $13 million in guaranteed money, which is the type of money reserved for top pass rushers. Weaver doesn't remind anyone of the New York Jets' John Abraham or the Indianapolis Colts' Dwight Freeney.

"We will continue to be active and pursue players who can come in and help our football team," Newsome said.

The players the Ravens have signed, with apologies to Lewis and linebacker Bart Scott, are nothing more than stopgap players. Pryce, 30, missed 14 games in 2004 with a herniated disc in his lower back. He managed just four sacks in 16 games last season and recorded just 15 tackles in his last nine games. Yet the Ravens gave him a five-year, $25 million contract that included $10 million in guaranteed money.

Bannan didn't start with the Buffalo Bills until Sam Adams got benched in the second half of the season. The Ravens passed on widebodies like Adams and Grady Jackson, but gave Bannan a three-year contract that included a $3 million signing bonus.

In the case of Pryce, the Ravens panicked after losing Weaver. With Bannan, they just went cheap, opting for a 305-pound defensive tackle who will now team with 310-pound Kelly Gregg in the middle. Word has it that Bannan is relentless in pursuit. He'll probably get plenty of chances to prove it.

"We have always liked our ability to put pressure on the quarterback, and Trevor will help us," Newsome said. "We already have Kelly Gregg, and now we have another defensive tackle who is a lunch-pail guy."

Good. Maybe if he eats a little more, he'll get his weight up. But at least we know he's the starter. That can't be said at running back. The team agreed to a four-year deal with Mike Anderson on Sunday night that included a $2 million signing bonus, and then re-signed Jamal Lewis to a three-year deal on Monday.

Neither is effective as a pass catcher out of the backfield, leaving the Ravens without a third-down back.

But what the heck? Kyle Boller can't throw it to him, anyway.

The Ravens, though, wanted a two-for-one deal with Anderson and Lewis, knowing neither can handle the punishment of a full season alone anymore. There have been few running backs to ever recover fully from a 2,000-yard rushing season, which Lewis had in 2003.

"We had two running backs last year, that's a position where you need two players," Newsome said. "We have seen the effects of having one go down with injury, and not having another to step up. It's up to the coaching staff, but the starter will be determined in training camp."

Either way, the Ravens are expected to be a power running team again. That's great, except they still don't have the physical, dominating line up front. The Ravens are still shopping around middle linebacker Ray Lewis as trade bait, possibly to the Denver Broncos for one of their two offensive tackles, Matt Lepsis or George Foster.

If the Ravens want to really improve this team, they have to rebuild on the offensive line, especially from center on over to right guard and right tackle. They can sign quarterback Kerry Collins, but his immobility makes him a prime target with this offensive line. A good offensive line makes everybody better.

Defensively, the Ravens are in trouble up the middle with two lightweight tackles and a middle linebacker who has been on the downside of his career the past four seasons. Hopefully, the Ravens can still recover in free agency, even though that seems highly unlikely.

Free agency has hurt the Ravens, requiring them to rebuild even more through the draft. Only a few days ago, even Jamal Lewis was surprised at the number of players who have left, a list that also includes running back Chester Taylor. The departures don't rival the veteran purge after the 2001 season, but there are more holes to fill now than there were after the season ended in January.

Right now, the Ravens are in no-man's land.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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