The Ravens had all sorts of reasons not to take Peter Boulware with the fourth pick in the first round of the NFL draft yesterday.

They were wise to ignore those reasons and select Boulware, giving them a signature player around whom they can rebuild their troubled defense.

Trading the pick would have allowed them to save money, add another draft pick, improve their depth, avoid a difficult contract negotiation and still draft a top linebacker later in the first round.

But not trading the pick enabled them to draft a bona fide defensive star, the kind who can make game-saving plays late in the fourth quarter.

Passing up such a player would have been a terrible mistake.

"That's how you win in the NFL, with great players making great plays," Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said yesterday. "We had to have that."

In other words, even though they could have filled two of their numerous defensive needs by trading the pick, it was more important that they add a player with game-changing abilities.

How many times were they one play away from winning a year ago? How many times did their failure to make just one play at the right time on defense turn a lead into a loss?

"We probably lost eight or nine games last year simply because we couldn't rush the passer and make a play when we had to," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said.

Free-agent defensive end Michael McCrary, signed earlier this month, gave them one such playmaker. Boulware gives them another.

He also gives them a tireless worker and an exceptionally solid citizen, a doctor's son from South Carolina who is graduating on time from Florida State next weekend with a degree in business.

If anything, the franchise has drafted impeccably with its first two No. 1 picks in Baltimore; Boulware is the defensive version of Jonathan Ogden, a great player and even better person.

They're players you can sell, which is important when you consider the circumstances of the franchise's move from Cleveland.

More than most other teams, the Ravens need a classy product.

Boulware helps give them that.

"He's just an outstanding person," Lewis said.

Of course, the Ravens drafted him for his talent, not his personality.

The signing of McCrary could have rendered Boulware unnecessary, but Boulware is truly a rare talent; he will move from defensive end to linebacker in Lewis' scheme, with a combination of speed and size so uncommon that Lewis laughed at the notion that the position change would matter.

"He's probably faster than most of the guys on our team right now, regardless of position," Lewis said. "We're talking a 260-pound guy who runs a 4.5 40. That's special ability. If we had traded down, we were looking at guys who wouldn't have been on the field for all three downs. Boulware will be out there on every down."

He has to sign a contract first, of course, and that won't be easy for the Ravens. They had to give Ogden a big contract at No. 4 last year because they couldn't afford to have their first pick in Baltimore hold out, and Boulware will want as much or more money without the same leverage. His agent is Eugene Parker, Deion Sanders' agent. You can see a fight coming.

Finding room for such a deal under the salary cap won't be easy, either. You can be sure more veterans will be let go.

One way or another, the Ravens have to get it all done. After a 4-12 inaugural season and a slow off-season in which other teams often have beaten them to the draw, they still haven't proven to the city that they're a capable organization. After deciding not to trade down yesterday, they have to lock up Boulware.

Of course, if they go ahead and sign free-agent defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, as they expect to do, they'll have done a lot to improve their defense.

Knowing this, Lewis was the happiest person in the Ravens' complex yesterday; the rest of the front office cracked up when a reporter asked how hard Lewis had lobbied to keep the pick and draft Boulware. Obviously, he had lobbied hard.

"Things are starting to work out," Lewis said. "We've added some guys who like football, first of all."

Huh? Was that a problem with last year's defense?

"An underlying problem," Lewis said. "How many guys did we have who wanted to work hard and get better, and how many were just here? I don't know. We had guys who didn't like it here, I know that. And this is like any other job. If you don't like where you are, you're probably not going to perform."

Translation: Lewis wants an entirely different defensive culture this year, starting with Ray Lewis as the leader.

"Ray had his year [of apprenticeship] last year," Marvin Lewis said.

Lewis, McCrary, Boulware and Siragusa would be the foundation of the new defense -- and a pretty solid foundation at that.

Sure, there are still major questions in the secondary, where only Antonio Langham and Stevon Moore are proven performers.

But the front office has decided that a pass rush is what the secondary needs most, and that's not a bad concept.

Drafting Boulware, instead of dealing the pick, helps give them the pass rush they needed.

As the old saying goes, sometimes the best trades are the ones you don't make.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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