Ravens brace for turnover on defense

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As the NFL remains mired in an unsettled labor situation, there is similar uncertainty facing the Ravens' defense.

Five starters from last season's fifth-ranked defense (end Tony Weaver, nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu, safety Will Demps and linebackers Bart Scott and Tommy Polley) will become unrestricted free agents Monday, the delayed start of the signing period.

If a majority of those players leave the Ravens - which could happen based on early indications - it would represent the biggest turnover on their defense since the salary cap purge after the 2001 season.

When surveying the prospects of these players yesterday, there was an overriding sense of pessimism.

"My gut feeling tells me that I probably won't be back," Weaver said. "It's not a matter of me wanting to come back or them not wanting me. I just don't know if I fit in anymore."

Weaver, a former second-round pick, has been the Ravens' most consistent lineman since starting as a rookie in 2002. But he feels the Ravens are willing to let him walk based on the way negotiations have been going.

"I feel like I've been put on the back burner a little bit," Weaver said. "I don't take it personal. I'm not upset at the Ravens. It's just the way I see it."

Another starter who could be on his way out is Scott, whose stock rose when he replaced Ray Lewis for 10 games.

There is a solid chance that Scott will receive more money from other teams in free agency than what the Ravens are able to match. Scott not only is young (25), but he plays a position of need in the NFL.

"We both agree that we have a heck of a football player who would like to return to Baltimore," said Harold Lewis, Scott's agent. "How do we make that happen without a new collective bargaining agreement? I don't know."

As far as Demps and Polley, the Ravens are expected to look for upgrades before considering re-signing them.

The team, however, has made retaining Kemoeatu a priority. Ravens officials talked with agent Ken Vierra at length Wednesday, but Kemoeatu will still test his market value in free agency.

The problem for the Ravens is Kemoeatu could be pursued by division rival Cleveland, which has a far greater amount of cap room than the Ravens.

"We've had significant talks this week so I know where [the Ravens] are coming from," Vierra said. "They're definitely going to be a player."

These five starters accounted for 36 percent of the Ravens' tackles last season (439 of 1207) and over a quarter of their sacks (11 1/2 of 41).

Still, their departures wouldn't necessarily signal a sharp decline for the defense.

"The thing with Rex [Ryan, defensive coordinator], whoever is on that field, he's going to make that defense work," Weaver said. "Don't get me wrong, we have a lot of great players on defense. But a lot of our success of our defense is our scheme."

NOTES -- There has been no progress made in negotiations with running back Chester Taylor, who becomes an unrestricted free agent today. ... Based on the expected interest from other teams, free-agent quarterback Jon Kitna is now considered a long shot to join the Ravens. ... Team president Dick Cass represented the Ravens at the owners' meeting in New York yesterday. ... The Ravens officially gave a "first-round" tender of about $1.6 million to restricted free agent Tony Pashos, a former fifth-round pick who is projected to start at right tackle. The Ravens have the right to match any team's offer to Pashos or receive a first-round pick as compensation. "I got drafted for a reason; they want to see me perform," Pashos said. "That's the mentality I've taken: I can't let the Ravens down, myself down or my teammates down. The first-round tender brings expectations, but it's also a commitment they have in me. Now, I have to back it up to them as well." ... In a USA Today poll of 90,000 people, the Ravens' helmets ranked second among the least favorites in the NFL. The Ravens received 22 percent of the votes for the worst helmet, which trailed only the Cleveland Browns (41 percent).

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Ravens' game plan

Here's a breakdown of what to expect from the Ravens in free agency:

Quarterback -- It was heavily rumored at the NFL combine that the Ravens would pursue Drew Brees, but that would take away a chunk of cap space devoted to fill other holes (nose tackle, linebacker, safety and running back). The likely scenario is a second-tier option such as Kerry Collins, Brian Griese or Chris Weinke. Anthony Wright, who quarterbacked the Ravens to the playoffs in 2003, won't be brought back.

Running back -- The Ravens aren't high on Shaun Alexander, and pursuing Edgerrin James would be too expensive. The first step seems to be bringing back either Jamal Lewis or Chester Taylor and then drafting either Memphis' DeAngelo Williams or Southern California's LenDale White in the first round.

Offensive line -- This might sound old: The Ravens would like to upgrade, but they don't have the extra cap space to do so. They are invested in their starters and their backups (who are recent draft picks) to do a major overhaul. The only new additions will be through the draft.

Receiver -- For once, the Ravens are set here with starters Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton. There's a desire to upgrade over Randy Hymes, an unrestricted free agent who is not expected back. It would be a plus to get a No. 3 receiver who can double as a returner.

Tight end -- The Ravens are in excellent shape with Todd Heap and Daniel Wilcox locked up. If they lose Darnell Dinkins in free agency, they would need to add a blocking tight end.

Defensive line -- The priority is to re-sign nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu. The Ravens will allow end Tony Weaver to test free agency because they feel they can replace him with undersized (and less expensive) options such as Jarret Johnson, Dan Cody or Roderick Green.

Linebacker -- The Ravens want to keep free agent Bart Scott, but they realize he might get more money elsewhere. The alternative to fill the hole at starting inside linebacker is Tommy Polley.

Cornerback -- With Deion Sanders retired, there's a hole at nickel back. While the Ravens will likely sign a veteran for that spot, they need to get younger at this position through the draft. Don't be surprised if the Ravens also re-sign tough-nosed veteran Dale Carter because he could have a specialized role in covering the tight ends.

Safety -- Looking to upgrade at free safety, the Ravens are not expected to re-sign Will Demps. They could re-sign Chad Williams as their dime back, although that's not a priority.

Special teams -- The Ravens are optimistic they can re-sign punter Dave Zastudil. They would prefer not to use another draft pick on a punter.

Jamison Hensley

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