Ravens owner Art Modell said yesterday that he plans to release about one-third of his present players, mostly on defense, and that the club still might trade down its No. 4 overall pick in the April draft to strengthen the unit.
Modell, as well as several other high-ranking team officials, met with coach Ted Marchibroda and his staff for seven hours yesterday at the team's Owings Mills complex to evaluate players and plan for the off-season.
In addition to rebuilding the Ravens' defense, Modell said the team could begin preliminary negotiations with center Steve Everitt as early as today. Everitt, the team's transition player, is considered one of the top linemen on the free-agent market.
"It was one of the most unusual but helpful and rewarding meetings I've been involved in," said Modell, who added that all the 1996 coaches will return. "The coaches were honest, full of candor and gave detailed analysis of each of their players from their on-the-field play to practice habits and attitude.
"I'm not going to play the name game today, but I promise you the Baltimore Ravens will have a very active off-season. Most of the players that are released will be exclusively on defense. Our offense was very powerful, but on the other hand we couldn't stop anybody. We are determined to have a winner for 1997 in Baltimore and right through the roof of the new stadium in 1998."
The Ravens had the league's worst defense this season, allowing 368.1 yards per game, 248.1 passing. After yesterday's discussions, Modell said the team had no pass rush, only one solid linebacker and a flawed secondary.
According to a team source, the only linebacker the Ravens were satisfied with was rookie middle linebacker Ray Lewis, which means the team may not re-sign any of its unrestricted free-agent linebackers -- Mike Caldwell, Mike Croel, Keith Goganious, Eddie Sutter and Jerrol Williams.
Marchibroda has expressed dissatisfaction with the play of safeties Eric Turner and Stevon Moore, two veterans who had differences with first-year defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. There also has been talk about moving cornerback Donny Brady to safety.
The defensive line was in disarray this season because of injuries, but most of the linemen are expected to return, including Larry Webster, a Maryland graduate who was suspended this season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
The Ravens have until Feb. 15 to offer contracts to 12 restricted and 11 unrestricted free agents. (Restricted free agents must stay with their original team if it matches the best offer; unrestricted free agents are free to leave.)
Modell said he will look to restructure the contracts of several veteran players to make room under the salary cap and possibly sign one or two free agents.
Top candidates to have their contracts restructured are Turner ($3.9 million cap value in '97), wide receiver Michael Jackson ($2.7 million), quarterback Vinny Testaverde ($4.6 million) and offensive tackle Tony Jones ($2.9 million). If Turner and Jones don't accept new contracts, the team probably will release them.
The cap value represents base salary and bonuses that will be counted toward what the Ravens and the other 29 teams are allotted to spend next season. This season's cap was $40.7 million.
The Ravens already have about $5.1 million against the cap for next season because they still are paying off the contracts of several former players, including Andre Rison, Leroy Hoard, Pepper Johnson and Don Griffin.
"We'll see some restructuring, some releases where we can free up cap money," Modell said. "We'll be competitive in the free-agent market."
The Ravens will have the fourth pick in the draft for the second straight year, but Modell said the club hasn't decided what it will do with the selection, other than that it will be used for defensive help.
Modell made it no secret that the team has an eye on Florida State junior defensive end Peter Boulware.
"He could be another Derrick Thomas," said Modell, whose coaching staff declared nearly three weeks ago they would run the 4-3 defense next season. "We're actively looking over the free-agent list, and that will have some impact on what we do with our pick. Finances have no bearing on our pick at all.
"If we can get two players instead of one in the first round who can help our defense right away, then we might trade down," Modell said. "Those two players will cost more than the No. 4 pick. But we have time to address more of our draft needs."
Ozzie Newsome, vice president of player personnel, said the Ravens will begin negotiating with some of the team's free agents within seven to 10 days, but Everitt is one of the team's priorities along with the re-signing of defensive end Anthony Pleasant.
Everitt, who recently completed his fourth year, was having his ,, best season until he injured a pectoral muscle in the seventh game against the Denver Broncos, which forced him to miss eight of the team's last nine games.
Everitt made slightly more than $700,000 last season and wants a contract for three years or longer. The average salary of the top 10 centers is about $1.8 million.
"Steve wants a long-term commitment," agent John Macik said. "They have restructured or renewed every other starting offensive linemen to show them that they are in their plans, everyone but Steve. I've approached them several times over the last two years, but we haven't gotten anything done. Steve wants to play in Baltimore, but we want to see a long-term commitment."
David Modell, the team vice president who will handle the negotiations, said: "We're happy with the way Steve Everitt has performed and I think we can work out a long-term agreement that is mutually satisfying for both parties."
Art Modell was noncommittal on the return of Jones, a nine-year veteran with the organization, even though he said the Ravens had one of the best offensive lines in the league. Modell also was pleased with the team's draft last year, which landed such rookies as guard Jonathan Ogden, Lewis, cornerback DeRon Jenkins and receivers Jermaine Lewis and James Roe.
Testaverde, the offensive line, receiver Derrick Alexander, Jackson and running back Bam Morris also drew high praise from their respective coaches during yesterday's meetings.
One area in which Modell and his staff showed extreme displeasure was in the team's off-season conditioning program, which may have contributed to the excessive number of injuries, second highest in the league to Indianapolis.
"One thing that is unacceptable are players not participating in the off-season conditioning program," Modell said. "All the weights, running, film and facilities are available for these guys to go out and make more money. I can't believe guys who make this kind of money aren't responsible. Well, we're going to send out a message loud and clear. If you don't participate, you're going to get released.
"There is a fine line between winning and losing in this league now."
Pub Date: 1/11/97