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Decision expected soon on Johnson; Ravens explore options with Lions on Mitchell


Ravens coach Brian Billick said he expects the Minnesota Vikings, after weeks of negotiating with several teams including Baltimore, to make a decision on veteran quarterback Brad Johnson by the beginning of next week at the latest.

The Ravens already were exploring other options yesterday, including talks with the Detroit Lions about the availability of quarterback Scott Mitchell.

The Ravens have been involved in intense negotiations with the Vikings for Johnson since the end of last week, but the talks apparently have hit several snags, the most glaring being the Ravens' unwillingness to part with their No. 1 draft pick (10th overall) in April's NFL draft.

The deal could involve as many as three draft picks for Johnson during the next two years, and Vikings players, such as receivers Jake Reed and Matthew Hatchette, also have been mentioned in several different scenarios.

According to a league source, Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, spoke briefly yesterday with the Lions, who want a second-round pick for Mitchell. Tony Agnone, Mitchell's Baltimore-based agent, was unavailable to comment yesterday.

But the Ravens could simply wait for Mitchell, who is expected to get cut by the Lions during the first week of June. Mitchell has two years left on a four-year deal that was worth $21 million, and Johnson has two years left on a $15.5 million, four-year contract. Minnesota would like to make a deal for Johnson before March 1, when he is scheduled to collect a $1.15 million roster bonus. The Vikings could choose to retain Johnson.

Either way, Billick said it's about time to move on from Johnson.

"We're reaching that point," he said. "I'm not saying it's tomorrow or this weekend, but I can't see this not getting done before the beginning of next week if Minnesota wants to make the deal. The key thing is at this point we keep honing down to the final deal and at some point somebody is going to blink. We've had as many as seven different combinations, but now we're down to the final two or three.

"We've done our homework and we've laid out what we're willing to do. There will be no 11th hour, 'Will you throw this on top?' If they're looking for something to sweeten the deal, it's not going to happen."

Several teams reportedly have expressed interest in Johnson, but according to a league source, the New York Giants dropped out of the race yesterday and the Seattle Seahawks have cooled on Johnson if they have to give up top draft picks.

"We have to be careful that we don't bid against ourselves," Billick said. "We don't want to give up too many picks for Brad Johnson. We're certainly comfortable with our other options as far as getting another quarterback through a trade, free agency or the draft, which might include trading up to get a top rookie."

The second option, though, appears to be Mitchell, 31, who was benched after two games last season. Billick said he might be able to rescue Mitchell like he did Vikings quarterbacks Randall Cunningham, and to a certain extent, Johnson, before Cunningham replaced him last season.

"Scott Mitchell is an excellent player and a capable starter in this league," Billick said. "People wrote off Randall Cunningham. People wrote off Chris Chandler. People wrote off Vinny [Testaverde, former Ravens quarterback]. That's not to say those people were wrong, but sometimes change makes a difference.

"I'm not saying they went to places where they had a better coach or a better system. Scott Mitchell, in what we do and the history that I have with offenses and quarterbacks, could possibly thrive in the environment I could create for him. I don't know that for a fact, but I've got a good track record."

Billick and Newsome also have to make another major decision by today, which is the deadline for designating franchise and transition players. Top candidates for the Ravens are defensive tackle James Jones, offensive tackle Orlando Brown and center Wally Williams.

d,0 Williams was the franchise player last season, when he made $3.062 million. The franchise player would draw the average salary of the top five players at their position. If Williams or Brown draw the label, they would make $3.369 million next season. Jones would make $4.239 million. Players prefer the large signing bonuses and long-term contracts instead of having to be paid their full salary over the 16-game schedule.

The Ravens have been in negotiations with Jones, whose loss would have a significant impact because he is a leader and one of the team's top tacklers. Brown and Williams would only be costly if the Ravens lost both of the starting linemen.

Williams met with Billick yesterday to talk about his role on the team. He said the meeting went well and looked forward to playing in Baltimore next season at guard or center.

But Williams didn't seem happy about the idea of being the franchise player again.

The Ravens have not had any talks with Tom Condon, the agent for both Williams and Brown.

"He [Billick] asked me if I wanted to be a part of the team when it became successful," Williams said. "I've put a lot of work in this franchise, I have a lot at stake and I want to be a part of it when this thing turns around. I'm more lenient now to play guard than center as opposed to last year because I was told something different. I think our meeting went well.

"I talked to my agent last [Tuesday] night and he said there was a possibility I could be the franchise player again. I don't know how I would react if that happened again. I'll deal with that emotion when it gets here. At least this year, I'm more prepared to handle it."

Pub Date: 2/11/99

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