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Free agency puts Ravens into motion; Linemen Williams, Brown pull out to visit Saints, Redskins; Option on Jackson declined; Billick interested in Moon as a backup

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As the NFL's free-agency period opened yesterday, Ravens right offensive tackle Orlando Brown visited the Washington Redskins, center Wally Williams was in New Orleans and the Ravens' organization chose not to pick up the option year on the contract of veteran wide receiver Michael Jackson, who failed to catch a touchdown pass last season.

Also yesterday, Ravens coach Brian Billick said he would be interested in having veteran quarterback Warren Moon on the roster, but only as a backup. Moon, who will turn 43 next season, was cut by the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday. Moon has said he wants to play only for a team on which he could challenge for the starting position. Billick said he plans to talk with Moon soon.

Jackson, 29, had been one of the Ravens' most marketable players during its three years in Baltimore, but his production, salary and occasional disruptive attitude were the major reasons the team decided not to extend a contract that would have counted $3.77 million against the salary cap this season; $1 million, though, will still be counted.

"His contract expired today [yesterday]," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel. "We have talked with Michael's agent and told him we plan to explore our options, just as Michael plans to explore his. If by chance things don't work out, we could talk with them again."

The decision on Jackson was no surprise, and he had talked about it openly by the end of the season. Jackson had a career year in 1996, when he had 76 receptions for 1,201 yards and 14 touchdowns. But his role diminished during the last two seasons because of several factors: leg injuries, the team's new emphasis on a running game and the emergence of fellow wide receiver Jermaine Lewis. Jackson was the team's third-leading receiver last year with 38 catches for 477 yards.

"Nothing happened that I didn't expect," Jackson said. "I said all along that I signed a two-year, three-year deal. I did that to help them out with the intention that they would return the favor. That didn't work out. Being a businessman in the Baltimore area, I understand the nature of the beast. Obviously, I'm not wanted there if they put me on the expansion draft list.

"I know what I could have done, but I can't do it without the assistance of others. My destiny is always in someone else's hands. They were playing with 10 people because I wasn't being used."

Publicly, Jackson never complained about the lesser role, but he was the target of a lot of criticism from his teammates during a private meeting midway through the season, especially from Lewis.

"I never was concerned with who was happy with my attitude," Jackson said. "It's a competitive attitude. If they want a player on their team who doesn't want the ball, they have a problem. If they have a problem with me being a competitor, then that's unfortunate. I can't play for anyone who feels that way.

"I want to be the best, and the only way I can be the best is to be an active and integral part of things. I was unhappy about how I was being used. I don't have a problem with anybody on that team, from Art Modell on down. I'll be playing somewhere next year. I'll go where I can negotiate the best deal for Michael, and I just don't mean the best financial deal."

Brown, meanwhile, wasted little time traveling down Interstate 95 to visit the Redskins. There was a lot of speculation that Brown would become the Ravens' franchise player, just as Williams had the year before, and that Brown would make a one-year salary of $3.369 million. A year ago, Brown said he didn't want the designation.

Yesterday, he seemed disappointed that the team hadn't offered him the deal. The Ravens thought Brown had a poor season last year compared with his previous two years in Baltimore, but Brown thought otherwise. He plans to keep his home in the Baltimore area and commute if signed by the Redskins.

"The Ravens told me all along they were going to franchise me," Brown told Washington reporters. "I couldn't believe they didn't. The organization brought me in when I was a free agent. I've been through playoff games with them, and they did me no wrong. But they had a chance to sign me last year and they didn't. They dug the hole. I'd never thought I'd be in this predicament, but I'm glad to be. Things have worked out for the best.

"I thought I played great last year," said Brown, who made $1.3 million in base salary and $662,000 in bonuses last season. "Once we knew they were going to fire the coaches, things went downhill. It was crazy over there. Washington is my home. I grew up watching John Riggins and the Hogs. I dreamed of playing for the Redskins. When my agent called me last night and told me this was my first visit, I lit up. It was like a dream come true."

Brown is expected to visit the New York Jets, possibly by next week. Former Cleveland Browns coach Bill Belichick, who signed Brown as a rookie, is the Jets' assistant head coach. Williams has only one visit scheduled, but there is speculation the Saints will make a full-court press on him because New Orleans has weaknesses at guard and center, two positions Williams can play. After a physical yesterday, Williams went to lunch with Saints quarterback Billy Joe Hobert and was expected to have dinner with coach Mike Ditka.

The Ravens have opened talks with Williams, Brown and tight end Eric Green, and are negotiating with defensive tackle James Jones, who is expected to visit Detroit on Monday and Jacksonville on Tuesday.

Green blocked well last season but fumbled several times after puncturing a lung Oct. 11. Green, though, is one of Newsome's favorite players.

Of Moon, one of the league's all-time-best passers, Billick said: "I'd love to have him as a backup, but I don't know if he would be comfortable with that. I'll schedule a talk with him and we'll wait and see. I don't think he can play 16 games anymore, but in a single game with everything on the line, I'll take Warren Moon. He doesn't want to learn a new offense, and he's is certainly familiar with this system."

Billick coached Moon in Minnesota.

NOTES: The Ravens continue to negotiate with the Vikings for starting quarterback Brad Johnson, but both sides have reported little progress in the past two days. Newsome talked with Minnesota vice president Jeff Diamond last night but reported little change. Newsome confirmed that he had a brief talk with the Lions yesterday about acquiring quarterback Scott Mitchell, considered a second option to Johnson. Seattle had been in the hunt for Johnson, but the Seahawks are only about $350,000 under the cap.

Pub Date: 2/13/99

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