Carrying playoff aspirations and two of the top 10 picks in the draft, the Ravens have launched contract negotiations with their first-round selections earlier than at any time in their five-year tenure in Baltimore.
Pat Moriarty, the team's chief negotiator, has held preliminary discussions with the agents for running back Jamal Lewis and wide receiver Travis Taylor in the last 10 days. Lewis, from Tennessee, and Taylor, from Florida, were the fifth and 10th picks in last month's draft.
Normally, the team doesn't begin negotiations with draft picks until early July. But this is the first time since 1996, when Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis were the fourth and26th picks in the first round, that the team had a pair of first-rounders.
Early talks don't guarantee early signings, but they are reflective of the Ravens' heightened expectations this season.
"They're willing to proceed at whatever pace we'd like to proceed at," Mitch Frankel, Jamal Lewis' agent, said yesterday from his Boca Raton, Fla., office. "We'd like something at a reasonable pace; we don't feel an urgency to do anything. But we don't want to wait until the last second. Our goal is to get Jamal signed before camp."
Moriarty met with Frankel this week, and with Steve Weinberg, Taylor's agent, last week.
"I think there's a willingness on both agents to get something done as early as possible," Moriarty said.
Frankel's last holdout was wide receiver David Boston, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals two days into camp last season as the eighth pick in the draft. That was 53 days before the Cardinals' other first-round pick - tackle L.J. Shelton - reached terms, however.
"Historically, we've had very little problem," Frankel said. "We get players signed in time and in camp."
Lewis is the third straight running back to be taken with the fifth pick in the draft, following Curtis Enis (Chicago Bears) in 1998 and Ricky Williams (New Orleans Saints) in 1999.
Capping free agency
The Ravens will peruse the June1 cuts for defensive depth, looking for reinforcements in the defensive line, at linebacker and possibly in the secondary.
"We're waiting to see who's out there," coach Brian Billick said of the next phase of free agency as teams maneuver to make salary cap room for draft picks. "We'll throw them into the mix of players we already know are out there and go from there."
The Ravens have a rookie allocation of $4.3558 million, and have $1.168 million in remaining cap space. Despite the seeming disparity, it's not what it appears.
"We're in pretty good cap shape," Billick said. "I don't want to say we have no cap concerns; you always have concerns. But we don't have any red flags out there."
One position the Ravens will try to fortify is defensive tackle, where Larry Webster faces an indefinite suspension, pending appeal, for violation of the league's substance and alcohol abuse policy, and where Tony Siragusa is seeking a contract extension.
Among the free agents the Ravens have already talked to is former Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Gilbert Brown.
Siragusa, who has asked the Ravens to trade him, remains in a holding pattern. He wants to upgrade the $1.5 million final year of the four-year deal he signed in 1997, and skipped last month's mandatory minicamp.
Billick said the Ravens won't negotiate with Siragusa unless he reports for a voluntary veteran minicamp on June12. Siragusa's next mandatory reporting date is the start of training camp on July 23.
Although there has been speculation the Ravens will release Siragusa on June 1, that appears very unlikely.