And the next QB is ...

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At this point, patience is needed. The Ravens are interested in a number of veteran quarterbacks, but it would be foolish to reveal their hand so early into the offseason.

It's the game outside the game.

Will they sign a potential unrestricted free agent such as Drew Brees, Charlie Batch, Jon Kitna, Josh McCown, Kurt Warner or Jeff Garcia? Or will they sign a possible salary cap casualty like Steve McNair, Kerry Collins, Aaron Brooks or Daunte Culpepper?

A lot of things can and will change in the coming months, but early indications point to Collins being the perfect fit to become the Ravens' starting quarterback in 2006. Now, let's not get carried away here. No phone calls or letters, please.

This is not based on inside information, nor are we taking a leap of faith. But if you look at the scenarios and matchups, Collins could become The Man.

You can immediately rule out Brees. The San Diego Chargers are contenders, and Brees is at the top of his game. He fits all the criteria. He's accurate. He's got good feet and makes logical decisions. He has won big games, and is a leader. Philip Rivers might be the Chargers' quarterback of the future, but he seems destined to be an understudy for another season, and the same goes for Atlanta's Matt Schaub, who backs up Michael Vick.

The Ravens can't afford to wait another year on the development of a quarterback like McCown. They already have one of those in Kyle Boller, whose slow progress helped force Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to put a one-year short leash on coach Brian Billick.

So, that cuts down the list of candidates significantly, and the answer keeps coming up Collins. Of course, he's still under contract with the Raiders, but it's unlikely that the Raiders will pay him his scheduled $2.5 million roster bonus this year as well as his $6 million base salary. Collins is expected to make $8.5 million during each of the next three seasons.

Hello.

Can you say "restructure" or "waived?"

Here's another factor: Collins was the quarterback of the New York Giants from 1999 to 2003 and has a comfort zone with former Giants coach Jim Fassel, who is the Ravens' offensive coordinator.

Here's one more: He's one of the few quarterbacks who can still play and win right away.

"He's on the ready; by that, he's a guy that can step in, make all the throws and still provide some leadership instantly," said a coach who has been an offensive coordinator in both the AFC and NFC. "He's proven and shown he can lead a team to the big game. I believe he can still get the job done."

So, that basically leaves the Ravens with Kitna, Culpepper and Collins. Culpepper is a good player, selected to the Pro Bowl three times. He's got a huge body and a strong arm. That's the upside. Here's the downside: Culpepper could miss the start of next season after tearing three ligaments in his right knee on Oct. 30.

Again, time is not on the Ravens' side.

Culpepper is also facing misdemeanor charges for his role in the Vikings' infamous sex cruise caper. Despite the injury and charges, Culpepper recently campaigned for a new contract after turning down the Vikings' request to rehabilitate in Minnesota and refusing a face-to-face meeting with new coach Brad Childress.

Doesn't this sound like some prominent players already on the Ravens' roster? Can this team absorb another helium head?

Kitna is an interesting proposition, but not the guy. He's going to commit one game-changing blunder every week. Bank on it.

Regardless, Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis probably won't allow him to leave. The Bengals have so many weapons that they can minimize Kitna's mistakes. With more repetitions than a year ago, he can be successful in Cincinnati, but not in Baltimore.

The Ravens don't have a featured running back. They have holes on the offensive line. They have good receivers in Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and tight end Todd Heap, but no one who can consistently get them the ball.

Hopefully, Collins will be on the open market. Last year, Collins threw for 3,759 yards and 20 touchdowns. He moves just well enough, and has enough pocket presence to be able to duck a pass rush even though he has a reputation for panicking under pressure.

"That was in an offense that was terrible, that had nothing to it," one league defensive coordinator said. "If you want to keep your team alive on the fly, then Collins can step in. He has enough experience to adjust to any system."

That's the M.O. for the next Ravens quarterback. They want him to either start, or at least compete with Boller for the starting job. With Collins, you get an upgrade over Boller, and a quarterback who has proved he can throw accurately, yet manage the game.

His future is in doubt right now. The Raiders might bring him back. If not, he might demand a lot of money on the free-agent market, maybe too much for the Ravens. But for now, he appears to be a good match. He's old enough to lead a team, and young enough to provide some energy and confidence. He might not be the long-term answer, but at least he won't be a short-term problem.

Again.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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