The Ravens want to solidify their offensive line for the 1999 season, but that task got trickier yesterday when they elected not to slap a franchise tag on any player, thus allowing center/guard Wally Williams and right tackle Orlando Brown to test the free-agent market that opens today.
The Ravens had thought strongly about designating Williams or Brown as their franchise player, an exercise that effectively removes a player from the open market. Had they taken the franchise tag route, the Ravens would have been forced to pay Williams or Brown the average salary of the NFL's top five offensive linemen -- or $3.369 million -- for the 1999 season.
Williams was the team's franchise player in 1998, when he earned $3.062 million. But the franchise tag also caused acrimony between Williams and the club, which never offered the long-term contract -- not to mention the accompanying hefty signing bonus -- that Williams wanted. He eventually held out of training camp for nearly four weeks.
Team president David Modell hinted strongly that the experience with Williams pushed the club to move in another direction this year.
"It [the franchise tag] is an option that's available to you around the league, but you're seeing that when you use that option, you end up creating some level of rancor with fellows on the team," Modell said. "That's an unintentional byproduct, but it happens."
Franchise players are only paid their full salary over the course of the 16-game regular season. No upfront signing bonus is involved.
Ravens coach Brian Billick, who has said he would like to have Williams and Brown continue their careers in Baltimore, said the typical reaction of franchise players puzzles him. Cincinnati receiver Carl Pickens recently reacted to the Bengals' franchise designation by saying he intends to sit out the 1999 season, since the club will not allow him to seek a new employer.
"I don't think any player likes being franchised, which is a little irritating," Billick said. "All of these guys signed off on the collective bargaining agreement, and I haven't heard any player say, 'Gee, it's great that I'm a franchise player.' They're all squealing like stuck pigs the minute you put that tag on them. But that's part of the deal."
Tom Condon, the agent who represents Williams and Brown, was pleasantly stunned that the Ravens decided to let both of his clients go shopping. Williams and Brown are six-year veterans who started as undrafted free agents in the organization. Each has been a fixture on the line for the past three seasons.
"I think there will be substantial interest in both Wally Williams and Orlando Brown in the free-agent market, and at 11: 01 p.m. Central time [last night], I plan on being open for business," said Condon, who added that he was contacted by Ravens vice president of administration Pat Moriarty yesterday about starting contract negotiations with the pair.
"The general consensus around the NFL is that they are two of the finest young linemen in the league, and I think there is genuine surprise at their availability," Condon added.
The Ravens are hoping to re-sign defensive tackle James Jones to a multi-year deal soon. They have been negotiating for some time with his agent, Jack Wirth, who did not return phone calls yesterday.
Jones, who visited with new Ravens defensive line coach Rex Ryan yesterday and hopes to meet Billick today, figures to listen to other offers. He is coming off two excellent seasons.
"What I have to do is look at my options, and coming back here is one of my options. But my mind isn't made up either way," Jones said.
Billick would not rule out trying to retain any other free agents. They include tight ends Eric Green and Brian Kinchen, safety Corey Harris, running back Errict Rhett and wide receiver Floyd Turner, with whom the team has had initial talks.
The Ravens expect several outside free agents to visit Baltimore next week, and Billick left no doubt that the team will concentrate on upgrading an offense that ranked 26th in the NFL and averaged just 16.8 points. He identified his biggest priorities as wide receiver, fullback, tight end and offensive line -- where the team also has not had a steady left guard since Jonathan Ogden played there as a rookie out of position in 1996.
Billick also hinted that the team likely would pass on a high-profile, huge-money player and concentrate on less-expensive players to upgrade the attack.
"I'm in this for the long term. I don't want to break the bank this year to make a splash that gives me five years of headaches," Billick said. "There's going to be some nice, bargain-basement shopping going on in the next two months."
In other developments, the Ravens also tendered one-year, $429,000 offers to cornerbacks DeRon Jenkins and Donny Brady, wide receiver James Roe and tight end A. J. Ofodile. As fourth-year players and restricted free agents, any of them could sign an offer sheet with another team, but the Ravens would have the right to retain the player by matching the offer.
Pub Date: 2/12/99