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What Are Ravens' Top Priorities?

February 13, 2007

By Joe Platania, PressBox Staff 

For the football-focused, Valentine's Day meant one thing: Free agency begins in about two and a half weeks!

Derrick Mason could play a slot role more often, or he could be a salary-cap dump.(Sabina Moran/PressBox)
For Ravens fans, the late-April college draft and annual free-agent signing period -- which begins March 2 -- are where they will get their flowers and candy. The hope is that the right acquisitions will lead to a Super Bowl bouquet being delivered to the Inner Harbor a year from now.

But the Ravens are hampered by possible holes at two key positions -- running back and cornerback -- as well as a dearth of salary-cap funds. 

It has been reported the team is roughly $3.3 million under the $109 million salary cap, while other contenders such as Cincinnati ($18 million under) San Diego ($21.4 million), New England ($26.9 million), Chicago ($16.8 million), New Orleans ($21.9 million) and Dallas ($18.2 million) are in much better shape.

Elite teams in a cap-tight position similar to Baltimore's are Philadelphia ($3.6 million), Denver ($2.6 million), Pittsburgh ($3.1 million) and the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts ($200,000).

The salary cap figure for a given player in one year is comprised of two key elements: the player's base salary for that year, plus the prorated portion of his signing bonus. Any and all roster and workout bonuses are also added. That specific definition is why a team's total payroll often exceeds the cap.

The lack of cap room doesn't seem to worry the Baltimore brass for one reason: the Ravens only have seven unrestricted and three restricted free agents going into the signing period, believed to be the fewest in team history. 

The unrestricted club could gain an eighth member if running back Jamal Lewis is cut loose. Lewis is due a $5 million roster bonus right around the time the signing period begins. That number would count fully against this year's cap and would prompt the restructuring of a few veteran contracts.

That's something the team did often in the spring and summer of 2001 as it prepared to make a run at repeating as Super Bowl champions. General Manager Ozzie Newsome is already on record as saying that approach won't be repeated.

So, how do the Ravens get better this offseason? What positions need a slight tweaking or a major overhaul? 

Here's an opinion as to what the team's top priorities should be: 

The problem here isn't so much the quality of the line, but the quantity.

The Ravens got quite a boost from a unit that, thanks in part to quarterback Steve McNair's footwork, held opponents to just 17 sacks and gave Lewis his fifth career 1,000-yard rushing season. 

However, because the team wanted more defensive backs on the roster, it began the 2006 campaign with just seven bodies in the trenches. Guard Ikehcuku Ndukwe and tackle Mike Kracalik were brought up from the practice squad late in the season, giving the unit a more workable total of nine.

The line's quality manifested itself with Chris Chester and Jason Brown at guard and Adam Terry at left tackle. The experience they gained was invaluable, but it wouldn't be a surprise if the starting quintet of Jonathan Ogden, Edwin Mulitalo, Mike Flynn, Keydrick Vincent and Tony Pashos began the 2007 season.

Because it is widely believed Ogden will return for one more season and the hard-working Mulitalo wants badly to make up for a season cut short by an elbow ailment, Pashos, an unrestricted free agent, is the only one whose situation bears watching.

That's why picking up a young offensive lineman or two early in the draft wouldn't hurt, if only to shore up the numbers.

Possible free-agent solutions could be Arizona tackle Leonard Davis, New Orleans tackle Jon Stinchcomb, Indianapolis guards Ryan Lilja and Jake Scott (both restricted), Seattle guard Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack and Denver guard Cooper Carlisle. 


Salary cap concerns surrounding Jamal Lewis may lead him out of town.  (Sabina Moran/PressBox)
Lewis' postseason bone-spur revelation could have been a public relations ploy to get the Ravens to bring him back for one more season. Knee and ankle injuries, not to mention incarceration, have tarnished what has otherwise been a stellar career for the Tennessee alum.

But with Mike Anderson's tough inside running, Musa Smith's slashing, change-of-pace style and the untapped potential that is P.J. Daniels, Lewis' cap concerns may lead him out of town, necessitating one of the others to assume the starting job.

After years of watching the Ravens pound a big back into the line for small, plodding gains, many fans have lit up talk-show switchboards begging for a smaller, speedier back that is more versatile, someone like San Diego superstar LaDainian Tomlinson.

However, the Ravens' offense is not built for someone like that. When the scheme and the composition of the offensive line changes to something more shifty and built more on zone and cut blocking, that's when a speed back will be able to fit in nicely.

But until that happens -- and it's going to take quite a while as the line ages and new faces are brought in and tutored -- a new running back ranks just below the offensive line in our priority list.

The highest-profile free agents at this position include Washington's Ladell Betts, Tennessee's Chris Brown (who burned the Ravens in the 2003 wild-card game), Indianapolis' Dominic Rhodes and San Diego restricted free agent Michael Turner, a Northern Illinois alum who helped his team upset Maryland in 2003. 

For years, everyone has talked about the "Boston College play."

It was late in the fourth quarter of a tense 2001 affair between Miami and the Eagles when Hurricanes safety Ed Reed called for a lateral from an intercepting teammate and ran it back the rest of the way for a game-clinching touchdown.

Reed is no different than any Hurricane; he likes to make plays and has made plenty of them as the Ravens' all-time leading interceptor. Recently, he had a pair of interceptions in the Divisional Playoff loss and two more in the Pro Bowl.

But as any gambler knows, not every aggressive play is going to give you the cards you need or want. Reed's sometimes-foolish improvisational ways have left the Ravens vulnerable to the aforementioned big plays.

That, plus the fact that oft-injured veteran Gerome Sapp and youngster Dawan Landry are the only other safeties on the roster, make this quite an area of need.

The Ravens wanted to guard against four-wide formations such as Cincinnati's by loading up on cornerbacks, and they did so last offseason. However, given Dallas superstar Roy Williams' coverage struggles, the need for a safety to play like a corner became much more magnified.

The Ravens not only need more numbers in this area, but more versatility and coverage ability.

Cincinnati's Kevin Kaesviharn became one of the league's best last season, and he is an unrestricted free agent, as are Pittsburgh's Mike Logan, San Francisco's Mark Roman, Buffalo's Coy Wire, Jacksonville's Deon Grant, and the New Orleans tandem of Jay Bellamy and Omar Stoutmire. 

Here's the bad news.

Despite loading up on coverage aces last offseason, the Ravens allowed 19 pass plays of 30 or more yards last year, including eight touchdowns.

The good news? Only four of those plays -- and one of the scores -- took place in the season's final month.

That fact alone, and the possible retention of right cornerback Samari Rolle (who got much better as the season wore on), pushed the need for another cover man on our list.

It's also important to remember the Ravens are already well-stocked with young corners who can fit in nickel, dime and regular schemes whenever Rolle (heading into his tenth season this year) and Chris McAlister (ninth) are finished playing.

The tenacious Corey Ivy, as well as David Pittman, Evan Oglesby, Ronnie Prude and Derrick Martin gave coach Brian Billick plenty of optimism early in the season.

But another veteran presence like Ivy to help the youngsters along wouldn't hurt. 

The best free-agent additions could come from a group that includes Buffalo's Nate Clements, New England's Chidi Iwuoma (also a great special-teamer), ex-Maryland star and Houston Texan standout Lewis Sanders and veterans such as Kiwaukee Thomas (Buffalo) and Lenny Walls (Kansas City). 

Even though the 2006 Ravens fielded their best wideout corps since the team's first two years in Baltimore, veteran Derrick Mason's late-season dissatisfaction could cause a schematic shift in this area.

Once again, Mason was one of the league's best third-down receivers, but more of those situational passes went to second-year man Mark Clayton and speedster Demetrius Williams as the season wore on.

With Williams' rapid rise, Mason could be shifted to a slot role more often, or he could be a salary cap dump if there's a draftable receiver the Ravens really like.

Either way, it's a situation that bears watching; the Ravens have an organization that does not take kindly to in-house criticism, especially when it's done in such a publicly blunt manner.

Two intriguing free-agent options could be Cleveland wideout Dennis Northcutt and Indianapolis' Terence Wilkins, who are big return-game factors as well. 

Other unrestricted receivers in what looks to be a down year for the position are Philadelphia's Donte Stallworth, Cincinnati's Kelley Washington and Detroit's Az-Zahir Hakim.   

Issue 2.7: February 15, 2007