Ravens on quest to upgrade passing game

OWINGS MILLS — In the wake of the nullification of a trade for All-Pro Terrell Owens, the Baltimore Ravens still need a proven wide receiver. <P> And the Ravens' analysis of the remaining free agent targets remains decidedly skeptical.

That leaves the AFC North champions primarily inclined toward using next month's draft as well as possible post-draft availability of veterans to try to upgrade the lowest-ranked passing game in the league.

An already skinny marketplace of receivers became even more emaciated Tuesday when former Chicago Bears starter Dez White signed with the Atlanta Falcons.

"Bare, to say the least," Ravens coach Brian Billick said of a class of unrestricted free agents that includes more suspects than prospects with older players Curtis Conway, Antonio Freeman, Bill Schroeder and Oronde Gadsen.

Will the Ravens pursue a trade option for Cleveland Browns wide receiver Dennis Northcutt?

Northcutt has been authorized by Browns management to seek a trade. And the Ravens have an interest in Northcutt, according to a published report.

However, the Ravens haven't commented specifically on Northcutt, a return specialist who led Cleveland last season with a career-high 62 receptions for 729 yards.

Plus, it's unclear whether the Browns would be willing to trade Northcutt, 26, within the AFC North having already indicated that quarterback Tim Couch will not be shopped to division rivals like the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Because his agent missed a deadline to void the remainder of his contract, Northcutt remains under contract to Cleveland until 2006.

"It takes a while to go through the trade process, although this year there has been more activity via trade than I can remember in recent years because of the salary-cap intricacies that come up when you make a trade," Billick said. "We'll keep our options open, but trades are rare in this league."

Northcutt's agent, Jerome Stanley, declined to comment Tuesday on trade discussions.

With restricted free agent receivers like the Washington Redskins' Darnerien McCants and the Seattle Seahawks' Alex Bannister, teams are wary of submitting an offer sheet for a few reasons.

One, they cost a fifth-round draft pick as compensation if their current teams opt to not match an offer sheet. Two, those teams often choose to match offers, wasting the time and energy of the team that submitted the bid.

"Our draft history speaks for itself," Billick said. "So, we're not going to just arbitrarily throw draft picks away. Plus, it can be futile to throw something out there and they can just match."

Now, the Ravens have their second-round draft pick (51st overall) back that they had traded to the 49ers before the Owens' trade was rescinded last week and he was sent to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Billick is encouraged by a draft class of receivers described as talented, tall and athletic by former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt.

"It's a very impressive class both physically and mentally," Billick said. "It's a large class in terms of numbers and as a group of big, physical receivers. For all the Anquan Boldins of the world, it has been a tougher transition for rookie receivers than many would like to believe."

During the dozen days after the Ravens' trade for Owens, Marcus Robinson signed a four-year, $9.4 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings.

"Losing Marcus was probably the biggest disappointment given the way it went down," Billick said. "If Terrell Owens had been a free agent and hadn't gone through this fiasco, we normally don't pursue the top-dollar free agents, so it's unlikely we would have ventured into that market. We probably would have been much more aggressive with Marcus."

During this time period, Darrell Jackson went back to the Seattle Seahawks. David Boston and Justin McCareins were traded to the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, respectively. Plus, Tai Streets inked with the Detroit Lions.

Baltimore was given the Eagles' fifth-round draft pick in the settlement. Initially, the NFL management council advised Baltimore that it had a binding contract with Owens and expressed confidence in its case before arbitration.

"The fact is the league handled this the way it did, and it kept us from pursuing Marcus," Billick said. "Given the information we had, what assurances we were given, we aggressively tried to make this team better.

"I don't know that you can second-guess the things we did beyond relying on people whose capabilities now bear questioning."

NOTES: Billick said that Pro Bowl outside linebacker Peter Boulware, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery, is the biggest question mark for off-season availability. He said the medical outlook is promising for All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis (thumb surgery) and quarterback Kyle Boller (arthroscopic surgery on left, non-throwing shoulder).

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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