Ravens mull options at linebacker; Sharper, free agent could take over middle if R. Lewis unavailable; Moving Sharper a gamble; Team unlikely to rely on draft to fill need


With the status of linebacker Ray Lewis undetermined for the 2000 season, the Ravens have begun contemplating options that include replacing Lewis with a veteran when the free-agency period opens Feb. 11, or possibly moving starting weak-side linebacker Jamie Sharper to the middle.

Ravens officials declined to comment yesterday about any issue concerning Lewis, who was charged with first-degree murder Monday night in connection with two stabbing deaths earlier that morning after Super Bowl parties in Atlanta.

Privately, Ravens officials are confident about Lewis being released before his preliminary court date of Feb. 24, and of his playing next season. But the team also has to deal with the possibility that Lewis could be convicted of murder, or of lesser charges, which could result in a suspension from the NFL.

Lewis, 24, signed a four-year contract worth $26 million on Nov. 19, 1998. He was expected to make $4.75 million in base salary next season, and it would benefit the Ravens to know his status before the free-agency period begins.

If Lewis becomes unavailable, then the Ravens could use his salary to sign a potential free agent such as Oakland's Greg Biekart, Arizona's Ronald McKinnon, Tampa Bay's Hardy Nickerson, Atlanta's Jessie Tuggle, Dallas' Randall Godfrey or Jacksonville's Bryan Schwartz.

Lewis has a standard pro contract with standard language, according to one league official. The contract doesn't have any moral or ethic clauses, and the Ravens could terminate it at any time. The league official, however, didn't know how or if his $7 million signing bonus would be accelerated in future years because of Lewis' legal situation.

"I know this situation still has to play out, but this could cause the Ravens big problems," said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. "This could really set them back. Putting Jamie Sharper in the middle could be a risk, especially with Peter Boulware [strong-side linebacker] needing to have shoulder surgery in the off-season. If Peter gets hurt and Jamie doesn't pan out, then a major strength has become a weakness.

"The Ravens may be better off bringing in a veteran through free agency," Kiper said. "There are some quality guys out there, and guys like Schwartz or Biekart may not cost that much."

The Ravens had been in the market for veteran backups at the linebacking positions, but the Lewis situation increases that need. Linebackers coach Jack Del Rio spent most of his day yesterday watching game film of possible free-agent players.

Only Nickerson, a 13-year veteran, is familiar with defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis' system, having spent six years in Pittsburgh, where Lewis was once the Steelers' linebackers coach. Nickerson had 141 tackles in the regular season, second-best on the Bucs.

But unless the Ravens are ready to pay Nickerson a big salary, he is expected to stay with the Buccaneers, who lost to eventual Super Bowl champion St. Louis in the NFC championship game.

Godfrey (fourth year, 143 tackles), Tuggle (13th year, 121 tackles) and McKinnon (fourth year, 151 tackles) probably would be better options. Biekart also has played well -- he had 136 tackles in 1999 -- but Schwartz has been injury-prone. The Ravens probably would wait until 10 days into the free-agency period to strongly pursue one of the players.

Sharper, in his fourth season, is another serious option. He had a breakthrough season in 1999, finishing second on the team in tackles with 122, behind Lewis' 198. Tyrell Peters was listed as No. 2 behind Lewis on the depth chart, but the Ravens weren't convinced he was the answer.

In Sharper, they have a proven player who pursues well. Sharper is a restricted free agent who could command a large contract pending the decision on Lewis. But moving him is still a gamble.

"He could possibly do it," Kiper said of Sharper. "He made great strides last year under Del Rio. When he was at the University of Virginia, he had problems with guys cutting him. He spent too much time on the ground and missed too many tackles. In the middle, with the Ravens' system, he wouldn't have to worry about players getting to him because the middle linebacker has help and just pursues. But the reason it's risky is that he is just getting comfortable at his current position. It might be a little hard to adapt."

If Sharper moves, then the Ravens would insert third-year player Cornell Brown on the weak side. Brown played well filling in for Boulware at times during the season when Boulware was sidelined with an injured shoulder. Brown finished with 32 tackles, but still has to prove he can be consistent as a starter.

Like Sharper, he'd be in a transition period, moving from the strong side to the weak side.

"The difference between the two is I play over the tight end while the weak-side linebacker is uncovered," Boulware said. "He can flow straight to the ball on running plays, and gets more into coverage on passing plays."

"It has a lot to do with attitude," Brown said. "When you're on the strong side, you have to be a lot more physical. You're free to run more at weak side, while you just roam anywhere at middle linebacker and most of the action comes right at you."

Brown and Boulware believe Sharper can make the transition to middle linebacker, but he doesn't have the speed or skill of Lewis.

"If Ray doesn't play, people aren't going to see what they are used to seeing," Brown said. "That could be tough for the next person. Those are big shoes to fill."

Said Boulware: "For Jamie or anyone else, it's going to be kind of hard to replace Ray. He controls the calls and the plays. It has been his show."

The Ravens have the No. 5 and the No. 14 or No. 15 picks overall in the first round of the college draft in April. Neither the Ravens nor Kiper says there is a linebacker worthy of those picks. The Ravens also wouldn't want to put a rookie in the starting lineup of the league's No. 2-ranked defense.

The Ravens probably will draft a linebacker in the later rounds. Some who might be available are Penn State's Brandon Short, Brigham Young's Rob Morris, Syracuse's Keith Bullock and West Virginia's Barrett Green. Former Ravens middle linebacker Tyrus McCloud, whom the Ravens cut last summer after a good preseason, might be another option.

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