Forecast cloudy for 11 Ravens

Free agents can leave, but future uncertain if they wish to stay

March 02, 2007|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun reporter

After hearing how linebacker Adalius Thomas and offensive tackle Tony Pashos will find big-money contracts elsewhere, you have to wonder which players are the Ravens expecting to sign?

That's the question being asked by linebacker-defensive end Jarret Johnson and the other Ravens who became unrestricted free agents today.

The Ravens have had preliminary talks with all 11 of their free agents, but like they have done in the past, they will allow them to test the market.

Although there is a chance that the Ravens could sign one player today, this has the makings of an unusually slow start of free agency, which creates an uncertain future for their free agents.

"I hope the chances of returning are pretty good, but I just don't know," said Johnson, who is expected to be the Ravens' first choice to replace Thomas. "It's so hard to tell. I really can't answer that because I really don't know."

Over the past two seasons, the Ravens have been aggressive in the offseason.

In March 2005, they signed three starters in the first 10 days of free agency (receiver Derrick Mason, cornerback Samari Rolle and guard Keydrick Vincent).

Last year, the Ravens signed three starters in the first three days (defensive tackle Trevor Pryce, linebacker Bart Scott and running back Jamal Lewis).

But coach Brian Billick essentially wrote off a third straight splurge at the end of the season.

"I don't know that our fans can anticipate a huge amount of presence in free agency because I think we are a team that is very capable of sustaining what we have right now," Billick said.

The Ravens, who have about $11 million in salary cap room, are in solid shape for next season. At worst, they will return 18 of 22 starters from a 13-3 team.

The Ravens' first move probably will be to fill the void at running back, where Jamal Lewis remains the front-runner. Although the team cut him Wednesday, it's expected that the Ravens will try a one-year deal.

Their next step might be to address the hole at outside linebacker. With Thomas likely to sign one of the richest contracts this offseason, the Ravens could look to acquire Johnson, Indianapolis' Cato June or another veteran (maybe rival Joey Porter, who was cut yesterday by Pittsburgh).

Losing Thomas is the biggest hit.

"That's part of the decision-making process that we had to go through in not franchising him. Who's going to replace him?" general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "Part of what makes Rex [Ryan] a very good coordinator ... is that he's already prepared to play without Adalius if we don't get him back. When we decide to let a player go in free agency, we have to have a plan in place."

Here are the three major positions the Ravens need to address:

Outside linebacker: Replacing Thomas with Johnson makes the most sense. Johnson is a favorite because of his work ethic and versatility.

Other than June, an undersized speedster, the other prospects in free agency aren't enticing: LaVar Arrington (has not played a full season since 2003), Napoleon Harris (underachiever who was ranked ahead of Ed Reed by the Ravens in the 2002 draft) and Brian Simmons (a cap casualty of Cincinnati who can play inside or outside). The off-the-wall possibility is Porter, who has had run-ins with Ray Lewis and Todd Heap.

Offensive tackle: Losing Pashos will be bigger than expected because he could have brought long-term stability to the right side. An easy solution would be to promote former second-round pick Adam Terry, but he still seems more suited to play left tackle.

The available right tackle group is extremely weak: Marc Colombo (revitalized career in Dallas last season), Jon Stinchcomb (started for New Orleans after missing 2005 season with a knee injury) and Todd Steussie (played under Billick in Minnesota and started last season in St. Louis at age 36).

Running back: Retaining Lewis is the safest option when considering the alternatives. The Ravens have a comfort level with Lewis and can always add another young running back in the draft.

The other running backs who might be available: Ahman Green (seems to be a lock to re-sign with Green Bay), Corey Dillon (if he gets released by New England), Dominic Rhodes (DUI arrest could overshadow strong postseason), T.J. Duckett (big back who has never gained more than 779 yards in a season) and Chris Brown (rushed for 1,000 yards in 2004 for Tennessee but can't stay healthy).

Notes -- The Ravens tendered one-year, $850,000 contracts to all three restricted free agents (return specialist B.J. Sams and receivers Devard Darling and Clarence Moore). If any of the three sign an offer sheet elsewhere and the Ravens decline to match, they will be compensated with a 2007 draft pick that matches the round in which the player was originally chosen. Because Sams was undrafted, the Ravens would receive no compensation. ... Free-agent fullback Ovie Mughelli has already been linked to Arizona, Miami and Carolina.

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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