Off-season planning should be sound

With about $30 million in cap space, with $17 million to spend on free-agents and the draft, and a top 10/11 pick in each round of the draft, the Ravens are sitting in pretty position to reload their depleted roster. They can address glaring needs at the right tackle, wide receiver and nose guard positions.

They can add veterans for minimum priced deals to augment the depth. They can lock up their own players to long-term deals that should keep this roster together for at least 2-3 seasons, if not a year more.

How the Ravens attack all of these different issues will be interesting to watch.


Clearly, there are a number of ways to go about retooling any team. The Patriots decided to load their team up with a number of veterans, who signed for minimum deals, and younger, emerging players to smaller sized contracts, like Mike Compton, Donald Hayes and Cam Cleeland. The moves paid off in 2002, when the Patriots marched on to win the Super Bowl, both the lack of enough talented players was a glaring weakness in New England's roster this past season, as the team was shoved around in the trenches all season.


Other teams, like the Washington Redskins and the Seahawks, blew their wad of cash on aging superstars who were clearly past their prime. While the Seahawks are going to be in terrific cap shape this season, they haven't made a trip to the playoffs since adding Levon Kirkland, John Randle and Chad Eaton.


The Redskins' famous nose dive in 2000, led to those aging vets like Deion Sanders, Mark Carrier and Marco Coleman, being released.


Clearly, the Ravens won't go to the different extremes that these teams did to improve their club.

More likely, you will see the Ravens follow the path that the Eagles took to turn their franchise into perennial Super Bowl contenders.

In the off-season of 2000, the Eagles scooped up Jon Ruyan for a deal worth $30 million. Runyan is regarded as one of the best right tackles in football and while he hasn't completely lived up to his expectations until this season, the mega signing didn't blow up in Philly's face either.


In that same off-season, the Eagles signed Carlos Emmons and Brian Mitchell to cap friendly contracts. Emmons is an underrated player, who since his signing has played in integral role in defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's scheme as the strong side linebacker. Mitchell is quite possibly the greatest return man in NFL history and his attitude changed the way the Eagles played football as a team.


The free-agent market of 2001 brought the Eagles two young players, James Thrash and N.D. Kalu, who were poised to have breakout seasons. So far, both signings look fairly solid, especially when you consider that their cap figures are extremely manageable.


The Ravens will have the same types of options in front of them, but the amount of signings they make and how much money they spend, will have a big impact on how they draft and how much money they can spend in next year's off-season market.

Remember, the Ravens don't have to address every single one of their needs this year, because they have many. If they still need a quarterback in 2004, they can go get one, after observing how their bland QBs perform with better offensive personnel around them this season. If they still need a better cornerback to compliment Chris McAlister, they can wait a year to see if Baxter or Knight can be the man, but if neither player steps up, the Ravens can make a move through the draft or free-agency to land a super cover corner.


Obviously, the Ravens will have to be careful when they spend, spend, spend. Taking a chance on some veterans available for short-term deals would be prudent. Taking a flyer on younger, cheaper players like Thrash or Priest Holmes (remember him?) who are on come, would be a nice move. Adding one blue-chip free-agent would be a great move too, but don't overspend on any player, especially if you can add 2-3 good players for the price of one.


And look at this, I've been rambling on and on about free agency, and I haven't even touched how the Ravens might attack the draft, which will play a more critical role to how the team develops.


Frankly, the Ravens lucked out in losing that last game against Pittsburgh. If they had won, they still wouldn't have backed into the playoff field, and with a record of 8-8, the pick could have been about 3-4 slots lower, depending on how their strength of schedule would have stacked up against the other 8-8 clubs.

Now, the Ravens are sitting there with the No.10/11 pick through each round, and given this draft class' tremendous depth when compared to the last two classes, the team has a legitimate shot to land three starters, possibly four if they draft extremely well in the mid-rounds.


The Ravens' ability to land quality players in the mid-rounds has been questionable though, although they found some gems with their last class. Generally speaking, the teams that are held in the highest regard when it comes to drafting well consistently, always find good players in most rounds.


In any case, the draft will be important for the Ravens, this is clear. Free-agency will be big too, you can count on that.


How the Ravens use these two resources in conjunction with each other will shape their franchise for the better or the worst, from this year on.


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