Ravens' focus: Sharpe, Brown; Either free agent would upgrade passing game


When the NFL free-agency period opens tomorrow morning at 12: 01, Denver Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe and Oakland Raiders receiver Tim Brown will be among the first players the Ravens want to contact. Both are represented by agent Marvin Demoff, whose clients also include Ravens unrestricted free-agent quarterback Tony Banks.

Nearly a month ago, after the Ravens' final game, coach Brian Billick said his preference would be to find a big-play tight end over an impact wide receiver via free agency or the draft in April.

Sharpe, 31, is possibly the best tight end in the game, and the Ravens also are likely to look at Ben Coates, a five-time Pro Bowl pick, who was released yesterday by the New England Patriots.

The Ravens also like Indianapolis' Ken Dilger, but he most likely will get the Colts' franchise-player designation. There is a drop-off after Sharpe, Coates and Dilger, with the Tennessee Titans' Jackie Harris probably next in line. Harris has been in the league 10 years and has been limited to a short passing attack, but he is probably better than any of the Ravens' current tight ends.

The trail comes back to Sharpe, Coates or possibly Brown as far as free agency.

"We're looking for an upgrade at either one of the positions," said Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome, who cannot talk about other teams' players until free agency begins. "In the past, we've had tight ends who could do one, maybe two things. We need a tight end who gives us the entire package."

That's Sharpe. The Ravens want a big target inside the opposition's 20-yard line, something they desperately lacked last season. They also say a player of Sharpe's caliber would be a threat over the middle and open up the outside game for the receivers. Plus, Sharpe has been playing in the West Coast offense that Billick runs.

Sharpe has had more than 60 receptions in six of the past seven seasons, except in 1999, when a broken collarbone sidelined him for 11 games. Sharpe finished with 23 catches for 224 yards. Sharpe had been named to the Pro Bowl in the previous seven seasons.

If the Ravens can't sign a big-play tight end, they'll try to find a go-to receiver and possibly some role players at the position as well. The Raiders have been working furiously to re-sign Brown before the market opens. Brown, an 11-year veteran, led the Raiders in receiving last season with 90 catches for 1,344 yards and six touchdowns.

The Ravens could need receivers because they have three who might hit the open market in Qadry Ismail, Justin Armour and Billy Davis. Ismail was a full-time starter who led the team in receptions last season with 68 catches for 1,105 yards and six touchdowns. Armour shared a position with Patrick Johnson in the second half of the season, but still had 37 catches for 538 yards and four touchdowns. Davis played mostly on special teams.

Some of the second-level receivers who'll be available in free agency are the Patriots' Troy Brown and Shawn Jefferson and the Chicago Bears' Curtis Conway, who probably couldn't add to the Ravens' offense more than Ismail, who has a year of experience in the system.

There could be some great trade material available such as the Seattle's Joey Galloway and Cincinnati's Carl Pickens, but big-name trades are rare in the league because of salary cap concerns. A team trading a player must count the rest of his signing bonus against that season's cap, rather than the bonus being pro-rated over the life of the contract.

"As far as free agency, it's not a true, pure list," Billick said. "There are not a lot of true, impact guys on the list, but some trades could develop. We can improve ourselves through free agency. They may not be the front-page, headline-grabbing-type players, but they still help us."

NOTE: Pro Bowl linebacker Peter Boulware had shoulder surgery in Vail, Colo., and is doing fine, Ravens officials said. His rehabilitation will take about four months.

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