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Ravens putting focus on depth


It's about that time of year when Ozzie Newsome and Brian Billick hang out in the Ravens' "barbershop."

Usually once a day, the Ravens brain trust will congregate in the office of pro personnel director James Harris, throwing around their ideas about the second go-around in free agency. The main topic of discussion lately has been depth - or the lack thereof - and how the Ravens would ideally want to bring back all of their remaining free agents.

But ...

"It's the cap world," said Newsome, vice president of player personnel. "Our cap will allow us to sign two, possibly three players. But we could utilize depth at maybe five positions in a perfect world."

The Ravens face an all-too-familiar problem these days in the NFL, with the team sitting $3.19 million under the salary cap. It's a deceiving figure, because the team will most likely gobble up half of that cap room to sign draft picks and use the other half to pick up a couple of free agents.

The Ravens' wish list apparently has had to be narrowed to keeping fullback Sam Gash and linebacker Cornell Brown as well as adding veteran quarterback Randall Cunningham.

That doesn't include re-signing free safety Rod Woodson, whose deal remains close to being done. For the other signings, there's no rush from the Ravens' standpoint.

But retaining Gash would allow the Ravens to return 19 of their 22 starters from last season's Super Bowl championship team.

"He's certainly interested in the Ravens," said Tony Agnone, Gash's agent, "but he's exercising his free-agent rights."

The next date of importance on the free-agency calendar is June 1. By releasing a player after that day, teams can receive some salary-cap relief by spreading the financial hit of a guaranteed signing bonus over the next two seasons. If a player is cut before June 1, his entire bonus counts against that year's salary cap.

The day probably won't be a significant one for the Ravens. They don't intend to release anyone and don't expect to pursue any players they project to be cut June 1.

Their major work was completed over the past two months. To put themselves in their current position to sign a couple of free agents, the Ravens had to do some creative accounting.

The team squeezed out some extra cap space by restructuring several contracts, including those of tight end Shannon Sharpe, defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, defensive end Michael McCrary and return specialist Jermaine Lewis.

Expected to make $2.25 million this season, Lewis could have been a June 1 salary-cap casualty before the restructuring. It is believed the Ravens cut the contract offer in half and gave Lewis the opportunity to make up some of the lost money by loading it with incentives.

The Ravens also saved an additional $200,000 by going with rookie long snapper Joe Maese, a sixth-round pick, rather than re-signing veteran Frank Wainright. Sixth-round picks signed in the $260,000 range last season, and the minimum base salary for players with at least five years is $477,000 this season.

At this point, the Ravens have exhausted all of the juggling options for this year's salary cap.

"We did as much as we could to remain practical and avoid creating problems in future years," Newsome said.

The focus now shifts to coming camps. The Ravens will be watching and evaluating to see which younger, cheaper players will likely supplant the pricier veterans from a year ago.

Can linebacker Edgerton Hartwell, the team's fourth-round pick, fill the roles of O.J. Brigance and Anthony Davis?

Will offensive lineman Casey Rabach, a third-round selection, eliminate the need to bring back Orlando Bobo?

Does the impact of defensive back Gary Baxter, a second-round choice, on the dime pass-coverage package and special teams cut out the need to re-sign Robert Bailey?

The answers appear to be yes.

"If you feel like a younger player has the potential to fill that void, then you don't need to take a risk with a veteran player," Billick said. "You can only tell so much in shorts, so you have to be a little careful."

The result will be a stronger starting lineup and a more inexperienced backup corps.

It's a tradeoff the Ravens are basically forced to make. The impressive signings of such starters as quarterback Elvis Grbac, offensive right tackle Leon Searcy and linebacker Jamie Sharper meant the backups and special-teams players had to become younger and less expensive.

It's also a tradeoff the Ravens don't want to ultimately regret.

"We had our share of injuries last year, but because of that depth it wasn't as apparent as it was for some other teams," Billick said. "Even with the injuries that we did have, can we absorb that same rash of injuries at the offensive line, secondary and receiver positions in the same way?

"There'll be depth there, but it'll be inexperienced now. It'll be young guys, and that always concerns you."

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