McNair could be select pick for Ravens

From The Cover

April 14, 2006|By RICK MAESE

A couple of days before Easter and a couple of weeks before the NFL draft, the Ravens already find themselves with all their eggs in one basket.

The Ravens' future is being dictated 700 miles away in the offices of the Tennessee Titans. It's there that Titans officials are deciding the fate of quarterback Steve McNair and indirectly, mapping the course for the Ravens.

Ravens officials watched the offseason quarterback shuffle from afar. In need of a new quarterback for next season, the Ravens barely raised an eyebrow for Drew Brees and Daunte Culpepper. They were waiting patiently on McNair, who is under contract with the Titans.

Now, we're close to seeing if all this waiting will pay off. While the draft board gets more muddled with each passing day, the situation in Nashville involving McNair and the Titans is unfolding just as Ravens officials had anticipated.

With the Titans barring McNair from working out at team facilities and the union filing a grievance on the player's behalf, it's tough to see the quarterback returning to Tennessee next season. Many mock drafts have been scrambling to update their boards, and the Titans are expected to take either Matt Leinart or Vince Young with their No. 3 pick. Both quarterbacks visited the team facilities this week.

The chess pieces are all moving, and if the Titans are intent on nabbing Young or Leinart, they could make their intentions known soon. Tennessee could waive McNair before the draft, injecting some breathing room in the salary cap to afford the pricey No. 3 pick.

This is the best scenario for the Ravens because the draft is the last opportunity - though an unlikely one - to find a legitimate alternative to McNair.

The situation in Nashville has dragged out so long that the Ravens have their backs to the wall: It's to the point where the rest of the league looks at the Ravens and knows that it's McNair or nothing. If McNair falls through, the Ravens' Plan B likely includes a backup quarterback or a borderline starter like Kerry Collins, who is hardly an obvious upgrade over Kyle Boller.

The team's starting quarterback for next season will almost certainly be either McNair or Boller. Boller could beat out the Plan Bs, but would not start ahead of McNair.

As for the draft, it's doubtful that the Ravens' quarterback solution is anywhere on the board. Before the situation with the Titans began heating up, some analysts predicted that Young would slip to at least No. 7 (the Raiders) and maybe as far as No. 10 (the Cardinals). If Leinart somehow falls into the Titans' lap, Young could slide down the board.

(Surely the Texans' talk of taking N.C. State's Mario Williams with the No. 1 pick is a ploy to help in negotiations with Reggie Bush, right?)

Even if Young lingers in the 7-10 area, though, some analysts are overstating the likelihood of the Ravens trading up to draft the University of Texas quarterback.

For one, the Ravens aren't historically aggressive on improving their draft position on Day 1. But the bigger reason is that a quarterback like Young might not be able to provide the immediate impact the Ravens need.

Most league scouts agree that Young will ultimately be a very effective NFL quarterback, but it might take a couple of years of development first. The Ravens are an organization focused on next season, not 2007 or 2008. They have some aging players at key positions and a head coach who can't afford to build for the future. The goal seems clear: They want to win now.

The Ravens will likely use the draft to plug a couple of holes. They would be fortunate if Florida State's Brodrick Bunkley is still available at No. 13. If he's not, many suspect the Ravens will scoop up Oregon's Haloti Ngata. Both line up at nose tackle, a huge need with the loss of Maake Kemoeatu. (Some mock drafts also have the Ravens selecting offensive tackle Winston Justice and safety Donte Whitner.)

No matter which players the Ravens select, the most important pickup this month should come from the waiver wire.

McNair is not only sensible; he's essential.

His favorite Titans target - wide receiver Derrick Mason - is already in a Ravens jersey. McNair might not be as mobile in the pocket as he once was, which means the offensive line will continue to be a liability. But blocking out of the backfield should be improved next season.

The Ravens have been patient this offseason. Now things need to fall into place over the next couple of weeks. The waiting needs to end. Last season was a tough one. If McNair doesn't end up in Baltimore, we'll see the patience of a rabid fan base quickly wear thin.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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