Ravens slip, but rivals don't gain

Despite team's free-agent losses, there's no power shift in division

Analysis

March 11, 2007|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun reporter

The Ravens believe they upgraded at running back with Willis McGahee, but when assessing free agency so far, they have been dropped for a loss.

The first wave of free agency has produced some unsettling changes: Career backup Jarret Johnson replaces All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomas; Adam Terry, a natural left tackle, takes over for solid right tackle Tony Pashos; and McGahee steps in for the franchise's all-time leading rusher (Jamal Lewis), a move that has led to mixed emotions among the Ravens' fan base.

But the Ravens aren't worried, and for good reason. Whatever they've lost in free agency, they have not lost their edge in the AFC North.

What have the other division teams done to overtake the Ravens?

The Pittsburgh Steelers underwent the biggest change when coach Bill Cowher stepped down after 15 years. The Cincinnati Bengals lost stellar guard Eric Steinbach and linebacker Brian Simmons and have done little else except place the franchise tag on defensive end Justin Smith.

While the Cleveland Browns have been the most active AFC North team in free agency, they are still in a rebuilding mode.

"Our fans deserve to know the faith that we have in this team going forward," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "There is always transition, and it's tough. You hate to see the players go. But where we are sitting right now - compared to a year ago and haven't even gone into the draft yet - it's an exciting thing right now."

It was only a year ago at this time when the Ravens didn't have a strong safety or a punter and their quarterback situation was up in the air.

Now, nine days into free agency, the only unresolved starting position is fullback.

Here are three reasons the Ravens are better since free agency:

McGahee is an upgrade over Lewis.

McGahee produced better numbers than Lewis over the past three seasons despite having less offensive talent surrounding him in Buffalo. Having Steve McNair as his quarterback instead of J.P. Losman, McGahee will face fewer defenses stacking the line of scrimmage. Lewis will remain a big part of Ravens history, but it was painful at times to watch his decline the past two seasons. His physical running style has taken a toll on a body that's just 27 years old.

Overpaying would have proven costly.

In a perfect, cap-free world, the Ravens would have wanted to keep Thomas, Pashos and fullback Ovie Mughelli. But forking over $14 million in guaranteed money to Pashos and Mughelli is mind-boggling and would have forced the Ravens to cut or restructure several contracts (which would later lead to cap repercussions). If the Ravens want to invest for the future wisely, they need to sign linebacker Terrell Suggs to a contract extension. He is entering the final year of his contract.

Kept the core of their team.

The headlines in free agency are all about the players who leave. But a large part of free agency is about how many players a team can retain. The Ravens bring back 18 of 22 starters from a team that went 13-3. Plus, the Ravens expect McNair to play better in his second season in the system and are optimistic that young players, such as Mark Clayton, Demetrius Williams and Haloti Ngata, will only improve.

Here are three reasons the Ravens are worse since free agency:

Needs on offensive line not addressed.

One explanation for McGahee's mediocre play last season was his poor offensive line with the Bills. But the Ravens failed to upgrade an offensive line that struggled with its run-blocking last season. The Ravens likely would want to improve at center (Mike Flynn) and right guard (Keydrick Vincent). Also, new right tackle Adam Terry is known more for his pass protection than run blocking.

Can't replace Thomas.

It'll be interesting to see whether Thomas will be as effective in New England, where he will be the focal point for opposing offenses. But in the Ravens' talented defensive ensemble, he flourished as a playmaker. Over the past two seasons, Thomas recorded 20 sacks and scored four touchdowns. The Ravens will feel his loss.

Gave up too many draft picks for McGahee.

The Ravens have never given up this many picks for a player, not for McNair (only a fourth-rounder) or even receiver Terrell Owens (a proposed second-rounder). It seems to be a steep price to send two third-round picks and a seventh for a running back whose career rushing average is 3.9 yards per carry.

It might not seem so extreme if the Ravens are able to get third- and fourth-round compensatory picks for losing free agents Chester Taylor, Tony Weaver and Maake Kemoeatu last offseason (those picks will be announced later this month). But it was surprising to see the Ravens give away so many picks when they want to get younger at quarterback, offensive line, defensive line and linebacker.

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Ravens' changes

A look at how the Ravens' starting lineup has changed so far during free agency:

Position In Out

Running back Willis McGahee Jamal Lewis Offensive tackle Adam Terry Tony Pashos Fullback Undecided Ovie Mughelli Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson Adalius Thomas

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