Ravens end 'cap jail' sentence Past obligations over, 'we'll be primed for free agency' in '98; Morris decision looms; Bolstering receivers, young defense also key

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After spending two years under severe salary cap restraints, Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome is looking forward to flexing some financial muscle in the coming off-season.

After the 1997 season, the Ravens will shed some $7 million in cap money tied to such former players as Andre Rison, Leroy Hoard and Pepper Johnson. They will begin plans to raid the 1998 free-agent market with a hefty checkbook that will get even healthier after the NFL announces a new network television deal that will raise the salary cap beyond its current level of $41.45 million.

And the prospect of upgrading the Ravens at such positions as fullback, running back, linebacker, cornerback and safety brings a smile to Newsome's face.

"Things will be different this year," Newsome said. "Last year, we had to turn over the personnel of our football team knowing we were facing a deficit from a cap standpoint, which meant we had to [go] with lots of young people.

" This year, we're looking at having about 45 players already under contract [after the season], which is a lot more than a year ago. We'll probably take all 45 to training camp next year, but we're going to create a lot more competition in camp. We're far ahead of where we were at this time last year. We're not in cap jail anymore, and we'll be primed and ready for free agency."

The organization will map out its off-season strategy at a Jan. 16 meeting of the coaches, Newsome, personnel director James Harris and owner Art Modell.

Newsome said the team will concentrate first on bringing back its own unrestricted free agents. The most prominent include center Wally Williams, cornerback Antonio Langham, tight end Eric Green, wide receiver Derrick Alexander, backup defensive tackle Larry Webster and reserve safety/special teams ace Bennie Thompson.

Then there is the matter of running back Bam Morris, who is about to complete his two-year contract under a cloud of off-the-field problems.

Morris, signed 15 months ago while on probation after pleading guilty to marijuana possession in Texas, served a four-game suspension at the start of the 1997 season for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.

In addition, he faces second-degree assault charges in connection with an incident at a teammate's birthday party at Martin's West last month (he is to appear today in Catonsville District Court, but the prosecutor in the case, assistant state's attorney Stephen Bailey, said he will request a postponement).

Morris also has a Jan. 12 court date in Rockwall County, Texas, where he has been accused of violating his six-year probation.

"That's an organizational decision, and it's something we'll probably have two or three meetings about," Newsome said of the future status of Morris, who leads the Ravens with 752 yards rushing.

"I notice when Bam gets introduced [at home games], I don't hear many boos. I hear a loud roar. I think people in this community recognize him as a football player. He's a young player who has made some mistakes. He's also played some good football for us. With the risks we've taken, he's given us some reward."

If the Ravens decide to seek a new complement to promising rookie running back Jay Graham, look for them to go after an established, workhorse back like Philadelphia's Ricky Watters or Green Bay's Dorsey Levens. Philadelphia's Charlie Garner is another unrestricted free-agent possibility. And the Ravens also would love to expand their offense by adding a proven fullback such as New England's Sam Gash.

The Ravens also realize they might lose wide-out Derrick Alexander, who leads the team with 898 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, but has been benched twice this year by coach Ted Marchibroda. Pittsburgh's Yancey Thigpen, Minnesota's Jake Reed and Green Bay's Robert Brooks have been mentioned as possible replacements.

"I like Derrick. He's a good guy and a fine receiver. We want him here," Marchibroda said.

"We will offer Derrick a contract, and he will have an opportunity to come back," Newsome said.

Defensively, the Ravens will look to the free-agent market to bolster their young secondary, maybe with a cornerback like San Francisco's Tyronne Drakeford, Pittsburgh safety Myron Bell or Dallas safety Brock Marion. They also would like to add a linebacker to provide veteran depth behind their young trio of Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper.

As for the club's exclusive-rights or restricted free agents, the club's highest priorities are quarterback Eric Zeier, receivers Jermaine Lewis and James Roe, defensive end Keith Washington, offensive linemen Quentin Neujahr and Sale Isaia and defensive back Donny Brady.

NOTE: Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who leads the NFL with 193 tackles, has been named the team's Most Valuable Player.

Ravens free agents

Unrestricted free agents (Player who has completed four or more accrued seasons of service and whose contract has expired, thereby making him free to sign with any club through July 15. On July 16, his exclusive rights revert to his original club if that club makes him a June 1 tender offer. His old club has until the 10th week of the season to sign him. If he does not sign by then, he must sit out the season. If no tender is offered he can be signed by any club at any time throughout the season.) WR Derrick Alexander CB Eugene Daniel TE Eric Green CB Antonio Langham RB Bam Morris WR Nate Singleton DB Bennie Thompson DE Larry Webster C Wally Williams

Restricted free agents (Player who has completed three accrued seasons of service and whose contract has expired. Player has received a qualifying offer from his old club and is free to negotiate with any club until April 13, at which time his rights revert to his original club. If a player accepts an offer from a new club, the old club has the right to match the offer and retain the player. If the old club elects not to match the offer, it may receive draft-choice compensation, depending on the level of the qualifying offer made to the player.) DE Mike Frederick OL Sale Isaia C Quentin Neujahr DE Keith Washington QB Eric Zeier

Exclusive-right free agents (Player with two or fewer years of experience who has no outside negotiating power. His rights belong to his 1997 club, provided it makes him a minimum qualifying offer, which varies based on tenure.) OL Alex Bernstein DB Donny Brady G Ben Cavil FB Kenyon Cotton WR Ray Ethridge OL Mike Flynn OT Spencer Folau RB Priest Holmes WR Jermaine Lewis TE A.J. Ofodile WR James Roe RB Tony Vinson DB John Williams

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Cincinnati Bengals

Site: Cinergy Field, Cincinnati

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Bengals by 7

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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