Ravens conduct business as usual.

OWINGS MILLS – The timing of Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis' indictment, arrest and not-guilty plea on charges of federal drug conspiracy last week precedes one of football's busy periods.<br><br> The veteran signing period for unrestricted free agents begins Wednesday, and the AFC North champions are expected to be an active, yet cautious player as they seek to upgrade personnel.<br>

If convicted of attempting to help a childhood friend purchase cocaine during the summer of 2000 in Atlanta before he signed a six-year, $35.3 million contract, the reigning NFL offensive player of the year could face a sentence of 10 years to life.

Lewis' legal situation hasn't stopped the Ravens from conducting business as usual, though. Personnel meetings were held as previously scheduled and scouts attended pro days on college campuses, including a workout at the University of Miami.

Not including the unsigned $7.1 million franchise tender for cornerback Chris McAlister, the Ravens still reportedly have $23.03 million underneath the league's salary-cap limit of $80.5 million.

"We'll be active in free agency," Ravens coach Brian Billick said after returning from the scouting combine. "That doesn't mean we're going to try to sign a lot of new players, but we're open to shopping around. Our top priority hasn't changed. We want to re-sign as many of our own players as possible."

The Ravens' pursuit of talent isn't expected to include a running back. Team officials deem that question to be inappropriate considering that Lewis hasn't been convicted of any crime, merely charged, and they are extremely confident in defense attorney Ed Garland's abilities.

Depending upon whether Garland chooses to waive Lewis' right to a speedy trial, the Pro Bowl running back's case might not come up on the federal docket until 2005, leaving him available to play next season.

Baltimore has Chester Taylor and Musa Smith, last year's third-round draft pick from Georgia, as reserve options. However, Lewis rushed for the second-highest total in NFL history last season with 2,066 yards. Taylor and Smith combined for 297 yards and four touchdowns.

The top unrestricted running backs available in a thin market are Philadelphia's Duce Staley, former San Francisco 49ers starter Garrison Hearst, and Tampa Bay's Thomas Jones.

Although the Ravens aren't allowed to comment on players under contract until Wednesday because of league tampering rules, published reports have already linked Baltimore as a trading partner to the San Francisco 49ers for wide receiver Terrell Owens.

Owens' agent, Dave Joseph, missed a deadline to file paperwork to void the final three years of his client's contract. It's possible that Owens might be available through a trade or could regain his anticipated unrestricted status after filing a grievance with the league that could be filed through the players' union by Tuesday.

The Ravens have a second-round draft pick to dangle, the 51st overall selection, but it's unclear whether this draft-oriented organization will be inclined toward a trade. Baltimore needs to improve its passing game, having ranked first in rushing and last overall in passing last season.

The NFL Management Council has ratified that both Owens and Cleveland Browns leading receiver Dennis Northcutt, whose agent also missed a deadline to void his contract, remain under contract with their current employers.

Owens told Sporting News Radio that he doesn't know if he will demand a trade if he's forced to remain with the 49ers. Predictably, he blamed the 49ers for the situation.

"Right now, I just want to be put in a situation where I am able to success as a person and basically take my talent through the roof," Owens said. "I want to go to a team that has a championship in mind. Right now, I don't really know what direction the organization is going in.

"I can assure you that neither my agent nor myself made a mistake like this. For people to go out and say my agent made a mistake is utterly ridiculous and insane."

Owens is due $5.3 million in base salary this season under his existing contract, $5.9 million in 2005 and $6.5 million in 2006. If the 49ers cut him after June 1, the beginning of the fiscal calendar in the NFL, they would reportedly be able to divide the cap impact of his release over the next two years for $4.8 million.

These developments with Owens and Northcutt means that Seattle Seahawks receiver Darrell Jackson is likely the best available unrestricted free agent option. Jackson has been prone to multiple dropped passes, but did secure 68 catches last season for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns. The Seahawks would like to re-sign him.

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Justin McCareins is one of the top restricted players.

Meanwhile, the team is attempting to retain several of its unrestricted free agents, including kicker Matt Stover, receiver Marcus Robinson, center Mike Flynn, outside linebacker Adalius Thomas and offensive tackle Orlando Brown.

However, Thomas' negotiation has hit an impasse according to agent Bus Cook.

The Ravens continue to talk with McAlister's agent, Mitch Frankel. A long-term contract extension would clear up addition space underneath the cap, but the team's payroll can afford to absorb McAlister's salary.

Beyond the receiver position, it's also a solid year for free agent offensive linemen such as Kansas City Chiefs tackle John Tait, Oakland's Matt Stinchcomb and Seattle's Floyd "Porkchop" Womack.

Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse, one of the NFL's most athletic pass rushers, is expected to be chased aggressively by the free-spending Washington Redskins. 

Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp said he wants to remain with the Buccaneers, but they likely can't afford him.

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has openly recruited Sapp and Owens.

New England nose guard Ted Washington will be available, too.

The Ravens are unlikely to look at linebackers, defensive backs or quarterbacks. Agent Joel Segal said discussions with Baltimore for a new deal for veteran Anthony Wright are "positive."

Wright would enter training camp as Kyle Boller's backup. Chris Redman is expected to depart, but the Ravens would still need a third-string quarterback.

Ray Lucas, who was with the team during Boller's convalescence from leg surgery, could fit into the Ravens' plans again as a potential reserve.

NOTE: Ray Lewis will undergo more tests on his right shoulder today to determine whether he needs surgery. This isn't the same shoulder that had to be surgically repaired in 2002 when he was placed on injured reserve.

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.


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