Ravens lining up to meet their needs


The Ravens will have another glaring void on offense to fill as the free-agency signing period dawns today.

While still in the hunt for Derrick Mason to address their need at receiver, the Ravens must begin their search for a starting offensive lineman.

Casey Rabach, who started all 16 games at center last season, has decided to sign elsewhere, agent Tony Agnone said yesterday. According to a league source, a deal will likely be struck with the Washington Redskins and could be announced as early as today, the first day unrestricted free agents can sign with another team.

Agnone said no agreement has been reached and expected several teams to be interested in Rabach.

"[Analyst] Mel Kiper had Casey rated as the best young free agent in the pivot [27 years old], and I would have to agree," Agnone said. "We would have loved for him to stay in Baltimore. But we knew when they signed Mike Flynn last year, it was going to be time to move on."

Last offseason, the Ravens had to decide whether to invest in Flynn or Rabach as their center for the future. They ultimately signed Flynn to a five-year contract worth $11.2 million (including a $4 million signing bonus).

But when Flynn went down with a broken collarbone in training camp, Rabach replaced him so adeptly that Flynn couldn't regain his starting job after he was cleared to play again.

The Ravens are expected to give Flynn his job back at center, where he started from 2001 to 2003. The concern is filling the hole at right guard, especially with starter Bennie Anderson not expected to be re-signed.

At this moment, Brian Rimpf, a 2003 seventh-round draft pick, tops the depth chart at right guard.

"You never say never, but Bennie's pretty sure he's out of there," said Harold Lewis, Anderson's agent.

Lewis provided a grimmer outlook on the chances of inside linebacker Ed Hartwell returning to the Ravens. Hartwell has made 472 tackles over the past three seasons, a total surpassed by only Ray Lewis (510).

"He loves Baltimore, the fans there, the coaching staff and his teammates. But there's zero chance of him re-signing because it's Ray Lewis' team," said Harold Lewis, indicating Hartwell could sign with another team today or tomorrow. "With them moving to a 4-3 defense, there's no doubt who they are starting at middle linebacker. So where does that leave Ed?"

A team official said there has been no final determination whether the Ravens will convert back from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 one.

Meanwhile, the Ravens' talks continue with Mason, the highest-rated receiver remaining in free agency. No visit is currently scheduled with the eight-year veteran, a team spokesman said.

But there apparently has been no movement as well between Mason and the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have been considered the early favorite to land him. According to The Florida Times-Union, the Jaguars have not conducted any contract talks with Mason in recent days.

In addition to the Ravens and Jacksonville, the New York Jets and Giants are expected to make a run at him.

Mason recently said he would strongly consider going to the Ravens because "they're another team headed in the right direction."

Those comments were quite different from the ones Mason made after the Titans' 20-17 playoff win over the Ravens just 13 months ago, when he referred to coach Brian Billick as "arrogant."

"I think we humbled them a whole bunch," Mason told The Tennessean in January 2004. "I think they got too full of themselves and thought they could just show up and beat us.

"Not only them [the players], I think their coach was rather arrogant. He was rather arrogant, and it backfired on them."

NOTES: Strong safety Will Demps, the only starter who is a restricted free agent, received the "middle" tender of $1.43 million, according to Steven Feldman, Demps' agent. That one-year agreement means the Ravens would be compensated a first-round pick if they fail to match an offer sheet from another team. ... Receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who could draw interest from the Ravens, was still working late last night to reach a deal with the Cincinnati Bengals before he becomes a free agent, according to the Bengals' Web site. ... The Ravens' other restricted free agents (tight ends Darnell Dinkins and Terry Jones, receiver Randy Hymes, nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu, linebacker Bart Scott, running back Chester Taylor and cornerback Ray Walls) were believed to have received the "low" tender of $656,000. If the Ravens don't match an offer sheet for any of them, they would get a draft pick in the round the player was drafted in return.

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