As the Ravens planned strategy for courting a possible future running back in Lawrence Phillips, the team reached agreement in principle yesterday with right guard Jeff Blackshear, who accepted a five-year contract extension worth $18.7 million, including a signing bonus estimated at $6 million.
After months of negotiations capped by daylong talks, Ravens vice president of administration Pat Moriarty and Ted Marchibroda Jr., Blackshear's agent, agreed to terms last night.
Blackshear, a seven-year veteran, had one year left on his contract. He was considered one of the team's top free-agent prospects after the 1999 season, along with defensive end Michael McCrary, who is still involved in negotiations with the Ravens.
"It feels good to get this done," Blackshear said last night. "I've been here for three years and didn't want to leave Baltimore. Now, I don't have to worry about another team; I'm going to be here for another five years.
"This past weekend, I was about to leave and go back to Florida. But the team gave me an offer that was pretty close to what I wanted. I stayed around because I thought we could get something done."
Blackshear, 30, is in his prime and was honorable mention in several publications as a possible selection for the AFC Pro Bowl squad. He is one of the team's strongest players and hasn't missed a practice in three years. Aside from All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden, he has been the team's most consistent performer on the offensive line.
"Jeff Blackshear is a great football player and a great man," Ravens owner Art Modell said last night. "He's a team leader and an important part of our offense."
The agreement with Blackshear is also important because it sends a signal to the locker room that the Ravens are willing to re-sign their veterans. Recent reports about the team's money problems and its failure to re-sign defensive tackle James Jones this past off-season caused some concern among fans and players.
"We'll be announcing a few more signings in the near future," Modell said. "I'm not concerned about McCrary getting away. We feel he is a heck of a person and a football player. He should be and will be compensated for his play."
The sweepstakes for Phillips apparently is heating up, but the Ravens plan to use a deliberate approach in pursuing the controversial former University of Nebraska star, whom the team considered drafting with the No. 4 overall pick in 1996.
Phillips' NFL Europe season ended Sunday when his Barcelona Dragons lost, 38-24, to the Frankfurt Galaxy in the World Bowl. Phillips' agent, Mitchell Frankel, did not return phone calls to his office yesterday, but two league sources confirmed that several teams, including the Ravens, had contacted Frankel. One source said several teams had made offers.
Modell and Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome said the club has had conversations with Frankel, but the Ravens would not make an offer until Phillips had met with Modell, Newsome, team president David Modell and coach Brian Billick.
If Phillips does not sign with another team, his first Ravens meeting would be in mid-July, because Newsome and Billick are vacationing with their families in Alabama and Minnesota, respectively, and are not expected to return until July 12 or 13. The Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers reportedly have high interest in Phillips.
"We're not going to make any hasty decisions," Newsome said. "Before anything happens, we'll get him in Baltimore and he has to meet with Brian face-to-face. If that meeting goes well, then we'll proceed accordingly."
The Ravens weren't worried about losing Phillips, even though he became the first NFL Europe player to rush for more than 1,000 yards. He carried 194 times for 1,021 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging 5.3 yards. He left Sunday's game with a hamstring injury, but the consensus is that he would have no problems participating in an NFL training camp. Most teams will open practice by late July.
The problem is Phillips' past. Less than a year before leaving Nebraska, he assaulted his ex-girlfriend, Kate McEwen, then dragged her by the hair down three flights of stairs.
During nearly two seasons with the St. Louis Rams, Phillips made most of his news off the field. Two months after being drafted, he was arrested for, and later convicted of, driving under the influence in Los Angeles.
In February 1997, he was charged with disorderly conduct after an incident at a hotel in Omaha, Neb. He later spent 23 days in jail for violating the terms of his probation stemming from the McEwen incident.
Phillips was fined about 50 times with the Rams. Ten games into the 1997 season, the Rams released him, and he played two games for the Miami Dolphins before he was waived. Phillips has 394 carries for 1,309 yards and 13 touchdowns in the NFL.
"We're going to be thorough, just like before our first draft," Art Modell said. "Ozzie, Ted and I had dinner with Lawrence and he was impressive, but the organization decided to go with Jonathan Ogden, which has turned out extremely well.
"Obviously, Lawrence had a special year and he is a gifted runner. Sometimes a new start, a change of scenery, can change a person. Maybe he has gotten a taste of recognition and he has turned over a new leaf."
If the Ravens don't sign Phillips, Modell said, the team will explore other options. The team could go into training camp with Priest Holmes still the starter, backed up by third-year player Jay Graham and veteran Errict Rhett. Or the Ravens might pursue another running back on the free-agent market.
"If something can be done and the player is appealing to Brian, then we'll make that move," Modell said. "But Jay Graham is appealing, and I've been impressed with Steve Broussard. I have tremendous confidence in Brian Billick, and if he wants a running back, then we'll get one. I didn't bring him in here for six years to be an also-ran."
NOTE: There has been speculation about the Ravens' playing the Redskins in the preseason, but Modell said it won't happen for at least three years because his team has other commitments.