Ravens catch big one: Sharpe; Standout tight end agrees to four-year, $13.2 million contract; 'Mismatch for most teams'; Team close to deal to retain QB Banks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Ravens landed one of the game's premier offensive players last night, as Denver Broncos free-agent tight end Shannon Sharpe agreed in principle to a four-year, $13.2 million contract that includes a $4.5 million signing bonus.

It is the biggest free-agent acquisition in the Ravens' four-year history, and Sharpe becomes the NFL's highest-paid tight end, averaging $3.3 million a season, more than the five-year, $15 million deal recently signed by the Indianapolis Colts' Ken Dilger.

Sharpe's agent, Marvin Demoff, agreed to the contract and later began negotiating a deal for another client, Ravens quarterback Tony Banks. A team source said that the Ravens had made substantial progress toward signing Banks.

Sharpe finally gives the Ravens a bona fide scoring weapon down the middle of the field and especially inside the opponents' 20-yard line. The Ravens also are hoping Sharpe's presence makes a difference in the locker room because the seven-time Pro Bowl player comes from a team that has won two of the past three Super Bowls.

The Ravens won't try to hide the fact that the West Coast offense will become the Shannon Sharpe offense.

"No. 1, he provides Brian [Billick] with a weapon defensive coordinators have to defend," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel. "Defensive coordinators have to game plan for him. In a game, he is a mismatch for most teams. Safeties can't match up with him one-on-one; neither can linebackers."

The Ravens made signing a tight end one of their top off-season priorities, and the coaching staff privately had focused on Sharpe by the end of the regular season, even though the team couldn't contact him until after the free-agency period started Feb. 11.

But Ravens owner Art Modell flew the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Sharpe, 31, in on his personal plane Monday night while returning home from Atlanta. Sharpe was taken out to dinner later that night by several front-office members, including Newsome and team president David Modell.

Sharpe is the total package at tight end, the complete opposite of the no-names and nomads who have played the position for the Ravens: Brian Kinchen, Aaron Pierce, Lovett Purnell, A. J. Ofodile, Frank Hartley, Eric Green. Sharpe has 6,983 career receiving yards, just 997 short of Hall of Famer Newsome's NFL record of 7,980 for a tight end.

"Their offer was significantly higher than we can pay," said Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. "I'm not saying he wasn't worth it. He may be worth it to them. They got salary cap room, and with the addition of a tight end like Shannon, they can be a real competitor in their division."

Sharpe has had more than 60 receptions in six of his 10 seasons and has gone over the 1,000-yard receiving mark three times. He played only five games last season because of a broken collarbone suffered Oct. 10.

The news of his acquisition was a pleasant surprise for Banks, who is trying to secure a deal worth an average of $3 million a season.

"I haven't had a go-to tight end since I've been in the NFL," Banks said from San Diego. "I thought our offense was pretty close to being something special last year but Shannon is definitely going to help.

"We have receivers who can stretch the field on the outside, but not anyone in the middle. When a team plays that deep zone, you need someone who can get down the middle. Now we have that guy."

Banks, an unrestricted free agent, was confident last night he would be playing in Baltimore next season. Ravens vice president of administration Pat Moriarty began negotiating with Demoff at 9 a.m. yesterday.

Since free agency began, Banks said several teams have shown interest in him, but he prefers to stay with the Ravens. Banks has spent most of the off-season in San Diego except for last week when he participated in the annual NFL Quarterback Challenge competition in Hawaii.

"I think they have already met three times and this will be the fourth," Banks said. "Hopefully, they will get it done. I feel as though it's in the best interest of the team and myself to stay in Baltimore. I've had some other clubs call, but they are not as appealing as playing here. Right now, the Ravens are my No. 1 option."

Banks, a four-year veteran, started 1999 as the third-string quarterback behind Scott Mitchell and Stoney Case. After the sixth game, Billick went with Banks, who compiled a 6-4 mark as starter and led the Ravens on a four-game winning streak before losing the season finale.

He completed 169 of 320 passes for 2,136 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. Billick has said re-signing him is one of the team's top off-season priorities.

While the Ravens were busy with Sharpe and Banks, restricted free-agent running back Priest Holmes was visiting the Miami Dolphins. Holmes was slowed by a knee injury early last season but replaced Errict Rhett as the starter in the second half of the year to finish with 506 yards on 89 carries.

Rhett, an unrestricted free agent, visited the Dolphins last week but apparently wants too much money, forcing Miami to look at Holmes, who could be acquired from the Ravens for a mid- to low-round draft pick.

Ravens cornerback DeRon Jenkins reportedly was in Kansas City yesterday, following a recent visit to San Diego. Terry Lavenstein, agent for special teams ace Bennie Thompson, has had preliminary talks with New Orleans, New England and Carolina.

The Ravens, meanwhile, reached a three-year contract agreement with Washington Redskins tackle Kipp Vickers, who could become the team's No. 6 or 7 offensive lineman.

Sharpe file

Position: Tight end. Age: 31.

Height: 6-2. Weight: 230. Years pro: 10.

College: Savannah State.

Drafted: 1990 by Denver, seventh round, 192nd pick overall.

Career highlights 1999: Broke left collarbone in Week 5, ending his season with his lowest reception total since 1991 and his lowest yardage total since his rookie year. 1998: Was Pro Bowl pick for seventh straight year, third in row as starter. Among tight ends, he led NFL in receiving yards and was third in catches. Posted seventh straight 50-catch season, a first for a tight end. 1997: Posted third 1,000-yard season. Had career-high average of 15.4 yards a catch. 1996: Caught 80 passes, tied for eighth in AFC, and was ninth in conference in receiving yards. 1995: Despite sore ankles, played in first 13 games (12 starts). Named Pro Bowl reserve. 1994: Posted career high in receptions with 87, most by a Bronco since 1961, and had his first 1,000-yard season. 1993: Ranked third in AFC in receptions and second in TD catches. Had at least two receptions in every game. 1992: He and Sterling Sharpe of the Packers became the first brothers in NFL history to lead their respective teams in receptions.

Career receiving statistics

Yr. Team Rec. Yds. Avg. TD

'90 Denver 7 99 14.1 1

'91 Denver 22 322 14.6 1

'92 Denver 53 640 12.1 2

'93 Denver 81 995 12.3 9

'94 Denver 87 1,010 11.6 4

'95 Denver 63 756 12.0 4

'96 Denver 80 1,062 13.3 10

'97 Denver 72 1,107 15.4 3

'98 Denver 64 768 12.0 10

'99 Denver 23 224 9.7 0

Totals 552 6,983 12.6 44

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