Work in Sports
Ravens Draft Day Notebook
Good offseason has expectations raised for Baltimore
Posted: Saturday April 15, 2000 10:17 PM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The addition of two top 10 draft picks Saturday, with both being skill-position players capable of making a quick impact, has raised the bar of expectation for the Baltimore Ravens.
And that's just in the eyes of the team's venerable owner, 74-year-old Art Modell. Mincing no words, Modell made it clear Saturday that the Ravens' rebuilding project should begin paying post-season dividends this year.
Asked if the Ravens were a playoff contender after drafting Tennessee running back Jamal Lewis fifth overall and Florida receiver Travis Taylor in the 10th spot, Modell signaled that the Ravens should no longer be considered a five-and-dime operation.
"The answer is, and this is not being unfair to anybody, but I expect to be a playoff team," Modell said. "I mean, anything short of that is a disappointment.
"I'm not going behind a playoff team, because [once you make the post-season] it's a crap shoot. But I want to be a playoff team, with hopefully homefield advantage. But that could be asking for too much. We're going to be a playoff team and I think this is the year."
Ravens coach Brian Billick, who led the team to its first non-losing season in Baltimore last year, going 8-8 as a rookie coach, sat a few feet away from Modell as the owner threw down his verbal gauntlet.
Without flinching, Billick, who was given a six-year, $9 million contract by Modell in January 1999, echoed his boss.
"I said at the end of the season, if you can't talk about it, you can't do it," Billick said of the franchise's attempt to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1994, when the team was the then-Cleveland Browns. "There are those who would say, 'Well, be careful about raising expectations, because it'll come back to [haunt you].'
"But my expectation was to be a playoff team at the end of last year. So anything less than the playoffs this year will be a disappointment."
The Ravens last season went 8-8 despite the imbalance of a 24th-ranked offense and a second-ranked defense. But this offseason, Baltimore has re-signed starting quarterback Tony Banks, added tight end Shannon Sharpe and backup quarterback Trent Dilfer, and now addressed the remaining weak spots at running back and receiver with Lewis and Taylor.
"We wanted to improve the skill positions on our offense," said Ravens vice president of player personnel, Ozzie Newsome. "We feel that we definitely upgraded the skill of our offense, and therefore that puts us in a position that hopefully we can win games 10-6 instead of losing them 6-3. That's been the thing we been dealing with.
"I will say this. I think if we're in the top 10 in offense, and not necessarily No. 2 in defense, you've still got a chance to be in the playoffs. You've got to be able to score points. We have to be in a position where people are afraid of our offense, and I think we've addressed that."
The Ravens, Billick said, would have been satisfied to address two of their neediest offensive positions this offseason, but have instead hit the trifecta. And with running back and receiver being probably the two easiest positions in the NFL in which to make an immediate impact, the Ravens believe that both Lewis and Taylor will not take long to show up on the field. Even if they are juniors who entered the NFL a year earlier than scheduled.
"It's going to be a transition for them," Billick said. "But they're at positions where I think the effects of that youth and that transition can be somewhat minimalized. I think you're going to see their impact on the field very, very early."
Lewis was the first of five running backs selected in Saturday's first round, and Taylor was the third receiver of the five to go in the opening round.
Billick billed Lewis as a rare combination of speed and power, and Newsome is known to have had his eye on him since the middle of last season, even before Lewis announced his intention to turn pro following his junior year.
"I foresee Jamal being someone who's going to crank off a couple 30, 40, or 50-yard touchdowns, and also be that guy you can pound in there from the 20 on in," Billick said. "That's a rare combination."
The Ravens like the 6-foot, 199-pound Taylor's ability to run and collect yardage after the catch -- the all important YAC statistic -- and say they are not concerned about his season-long battle with a high ankle sprain in 1999, or Lewis' season-ending knee surgery as a sophomore in 1998. Both players were checked out extensively by the Ravens' team doctors.
"We came away feeling that we had two guys who could definitely upgrade our football team," Newsome said.
A battle to come over Lewis' signing bonus?
Before the draft, the Ravens made it known that they very willing to trade out of the No. 5 spot in the draft, in part because they didn't think any of the players they were targeting in that slot were worth the $8.8 million signing bonus that last year's No. 5 pick received.
Of course, last year's No. 5 was New Orleans running back Ricky Williams, the Heisman Trophy winner who signed a bizarre contract that tied up most of his earnings except the signing bonus in incentives. Williams had a horrible, injury-plagued rookie season and realized just $50,000 in incentives last year, in addition to a base salary that was near the rookie minimum.
But in selecting a running back at No. 5, in Lewis, the Ravens are leaving themselves open to demands for a bonus in the range of Williams'. By comparison, last year's No. 6 pick, Torry Holt, received a bonus of just $5.4 million.
Baltimore has this much going for it, though. Both sides in this future negotiation regard Williams' deal as the aberration, and may throw it out the window to some degree before opening talks.
"We've had no discussion about a contract," Lewis' agent, Mitch Frankel, said Saturday. "We didn't even know until [Saturday] that they wanted to draft him. But the Ricky Williams deal, I don't believe it's even relevant to our situation. It's something I'm not even really concerned about.
"It's one of the worst deals ever negotiated for a player in that spot. It was an aberration in the negative sense. There's nothing we would hold up from that deal as a factor in our negotiations."
Lewis working out with Cris Carter in Florida
Frankel is also the agent for Ravens fullback Charles Evans and running back Priest Holmes and has a good working relationship with the organization. But his most famous NFL client may be Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl receiver Cris Carter.
Carter owns and operates a training gym for NFL players and other athletes near his home in Boca Raton, Fla. Lewis has been working out in Carter's gym -- called Cris Carter's Fast Program -- for the past 10 weeks, Frankel said.
"He's been down in Florida working hard the whole offseason," Frankel said. "Baltimore is a great opportunity for Jamal. He's going to a team with a great offensive mind with Brian Billick as head coach. They need a lead running back, and it's a great fit."