On a day when boxes lined the halls of their Owings Mills complex, the Ravens added one last-minute package to the moving list before heading to training camp.
Three days before players report to Western Maryland College, the Ravens agreed in principle with free agent Ben Coates, a five-time Pro Bowl tight end. Neither side wasted much time - Coates arrived at his hotel here Wednesday night and left out 17 hours later with a one-year deal that is believed to be worth $700,000.
Coates, who spent nine seasons with the New England Patriots, will join longtime friend Shannon Sharpe to give the Ravens potentially the best tight end tandem in the NFL this season. Considered the top two tight ends of the '90s, Coates and Sharpe have each averaged more than 65 catches and close to six touchdowns for the past seven seasons.
How big of an upgrade is it for the Ravens?
Last year, the team squeezed out only 34 catches and one touchdown from five tight ends - Greg DeLong, Aaron Pierce, Ryan Collins, A.J. Ofodile and Lovett Purnell. Now, they have the luxury of throwing to Coates and Sharpe, both of whom rank in the top five in league history for catches by a tight end.
"Strictly from the football standpoint, the aspect of having two players the caliber of a Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates on either side of the center, you create a dynamic for the defense that's going to be interesting to see," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "That presents some real difficulties for a defense."
For Coates, it ended some real difficulties on the free-agent market.
After catching more than 50 passes in six of the past eight seasons, Coates dropped sharply off that pace last year with 32 receptions for 370 yards. The Patriots asked him to take a pay cut from $2.7 million to $1.5 million, then released Coates on Feb. 9 when he refused. Coates said he didn't want to be part of New England's rebuilding process.
As a free agent, he first talked with Tennessee in April and reportedly turned down a four-year incentive package that included a $1 million signing bonus. He visited the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions over the past two months, but didn't receive any offers.
Does Coates have any regrets about passing on those higher-paying deals now?
"It's not all about the money," the 6-foot-5, 245-pound player said. "Some guys play for the love of the game, and I'm still playing for the love of the game."
And what was the reason he didn't sign with Tennessee?
"That was a couple of months ago," said Coates, who turns 31 on Aug. 16. "I can't remember that now. They're a divisional opponent right now."
Coates, however, recalls why he had his worst year as a starter last season. New Patriots offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese favors the long-ball offense, throwing deep to wide receivers and not relying much on tight ends.
Midway through the season, Coates sounded off about being ignored in the offense.
"If this is the way they want it, what's there to say?" he said after going without a catch in a 27-3 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 31. "Just release me. Be my guest."
Billick addressed this incident with Coates yesterday and deemed it "out of character." The Ravens also dismissed the rumblings that Coates may have lost a step or had trouble getting open last season.
"What I saw was a guy that's still one of the three or five best tight ends in the league," said vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome, the NFL's career leader for catches by a tight end. "You can only be able to prove that when you can get a chance to get involved in the offense, more so than just a blocker."
Said Coates, who expects to play at least 15 plays a game: "Every time you go to training camp, you want to prove to yourself that you're not done. Anytime you're an eight- to 10-year guy, you want to continue to play. And yes, I want to continue to play and continue to win."
The Ravens are already brimming about their added flexibility with Coates, who set the NFL tight end record with 96 receptions in 1994 and went to the Pro Bowl every year from 1994 to 1998.
They can play a two-tight end formation with Coates and Sharpe. They can move Sharpe into the slot for a three-wide set. They can shift Sharpe and Coates outside for four wide-outs.
"There's plenty in the playbook right now for two tight ends," Billick said with a grin. "Now that I got two tight ends."