The anticipated off-season purge by the Ravens begins today.
Houston will pluck linebacker Jamie Sharper and return specialist Jermaine Lewis off the Ravens' five-man unprotected list in this afternoon's expansion draft, Texans general manager Charley Casserly confirmed late last week.
Sharper and Lewis' imminent departure will clear $7.7 million off the Ravens' salary cap, leaving the team roughly $15 million over. Soon, the Ravens will begin restructuring contracts of some of the more high-priced veterans - including quarterback Elvis Grbac - and decide what to do with some of their older players like Rod Woodson and Shannon Sharpe in an effort to get under the $71 million cap.
"As we've talked about now for the last two months, we have issues with our salary cap," Ravens senior vice president of football operations Ozzie Newsome said. "And we do have a plan in place to, No. 1, get under the cap by March 1, and to try and retain some of our core players."
That Houston would target Sharper and Lewis did not come as a surprise to the Ravens, who also left end Rob Burnett, linebacker Brad Jackson and offensive lineman Kipp Vickers unprotected.
Both Sharper and Lewis are under 30 and appear to be in the prime of their respective careers. Lewis made the Pro Bowl last season after finishing second in the AFC in kickoff return average (24.7 yards) and third in punts (12.4), and Sharper had a Pro Bowl-caliber year, racking up six sacks and 135 tackles.
"We certainly understand the ramifications of it, and are ready for it to happen," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Clearly the cap ramifications, we've accounted for.
"Any of these players you hate to lose. I'd hate to lose any of those players on that list. They've all been a part of what we've done here. Certainly Jermaine having been here his entire career, his explosiveness on the return, him being a local kid; unfortunately these are the type of decisions you have to make."
Both Sharper and Lewis were drafted by the Ravens. Sharper was drafted in the second round in 1997 out of Virginia and started 79 of 80 games.
Lewis was a fifth-round pick out of Maryland in 1996, and worked himself in as a viable receiving threat by his second year. Lewis recorded a combined 83 catches and 12 touchdowns in the 1997 and 1998 seasons, but never was able to duplicate such success as a receiver in his three seasons under Billick.
Instead, he established himself as one of the league's premier return men and will leave the Ravens with a tremendous void. Cornerback Duane Starks, Lewis' backup on punt returns, is an unrestricted free agent. Safety Corey Harris, one of the few on the Ravens' roster that has experience in returning kickoffs, is also an unrestricted free agent.
"We'll look at what's out on the market and the draft," Billick said. "We have a couple of people in-house that could punt return and kickoff return. But we would probably look outside."