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Man in middle is Ravens' pivotal problem

Listen, we love Quentin Neujahr. Love that he waited patiently for two years. Love that he expects nothing to be given to him. Love that he's working out with the rookies in the afternoon to impress the Ravens' coaches.

But can he play?

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"We're going to have to wait and see," coach Ted Marchibroda said yesterday. "He's the type of guy everyone is rooting for -- the players, coaches, front office -- because he works so hard. We certainly hope he can do it."

Key word: Hope.

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And hope is not good enough.

It's only June, only minicamp, but it's difficult to imagine the Ravens opening the season with Neujahr at center if they want their offensive line to remain one of their strong points.

Three of their five starters from last season are gone, and vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome already concedes that the line won't be as good.

"We were going seven or eight deep last year, so no," Newsome said. "But can it still be one of the top 10 lines in the league? Yes."

Especially if Newsome signs another center.

Neujahr deserves every opportunity to prove he can start. Wally Williams may be back sooner than expected. But even under every best-case scenario, the Ravens would be better if they added a veteran center.

They're going to sign another offensive lineman, anyway -- perhaps a backup guard/tackle to replace the retired Herman Arvie. Newsome wants the best player available. A center would make the line better and deeper.

Say the free agent was 17-year veteran Ray Donaldson. The Ravens could open the season with Leo Goeas at left guard. And when Williams returned, he could take over at that position, where he started 14 games in 1995.

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"That would be the story of my life," Williams said. "I've been going back and forth between center and guard, like I did the second half of last season [after Steve Everitt was injured].

"Would I be disappointed? Yes. My first love was always center. But then you look at it as another opportunity to get on the field, start playing on a daily basis. As long as I'm in the top five, I really don't care."

So, here's your top five -- Jonathan Ogden, Williams, Donaldson, Jeff Blackshear and Orlando Brown. That's a formidable line, more formidable than one with Goeas and Neujahr, who would become the principal backups.

The Ravens still would be thin at tackle behind Ogden and Brown -- Goeas and Sale Isaia are guards, and Spencer Folau is an unknown. But under the salary cap, teams can't possibly fill every hole.

So, why delay this any longer?

The Ravens barely pursued Jerry Fontenot, who reunited with Mike Ditka in New Orleans. And they blew their chance to sign Jeff Uhlenhake, who returned to the Redskins for a three-year, $1.55 million contract.

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Kirk Lowdermilk reportedly wants $1.7 million, so he's out of the Ravens' price range. That leaves Donaldson as probably the best attractive option, even if he's 39 years old.

Still, Newsome said there's no hurry, estimating that half the free-agent centers still will be available after the second preseason game in August. The Ravens want to find out about Neujahr. They also want Williams to stay at center.

In fact, Marchibroda, Newsome and offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz all said yesterday that Williams belongs at his natural position. If that's their thinking, they probably envision Neujahr as a four- to six-week stopgap.

But why sacrifice that long?

And why even commit to Goeas?

He would stay at left guard if the Ravens opted for a backup tackle over a center. But he played last season for St. Louis, a team that ranked 27th in total offense last season, 28th in passing.

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The Ravens, meanwhile, ranked third in total offense, and second in passing, and the line was a major reason. Clearly, the defense required more off-season attention, but the offensive line is too important to ignore.

Neujahr is smart enough to make the line calls -- he was all-academic Big Eight three times at Kansas State. But he looked physically overmatched against Denver in his only appearance at center last season, although he has since added 20 pounds.

Think about it: The Ravens never considered returning Williams to guard and installing Neujahr at center after losing Everitt. Only after Williams ruptured his Achilles' tendon did Neujahr become an option.

Williams is "right on schedule, if not slightly ahead," in his recovery, according to trainer Bill Tessendorf. He might even avoid the physically-unable-to-perform list, which would prevent him from even practicing the first six weeks.

Still, the Ravens can't assume that Williams will return in Week 4. They can't assume fifth-round draft pick Jeff Mitchell will help them. And they can't assume Neujahr will succeed at such a pivotal position.

They need to get back to where they were last season.

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They need to sign a center.

Pub Date: 6/10/97


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