- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2002

OWINGS MILLS, Md. Projected to be $20 million over next season's estimated $72 million salary cap, the Baltimore Ravens will have to start crunching numbers and some big names this offseason.

Ravens coach Brian Billick prefers to call it regrouping instead of rebuilding.

The Ravens' regrouping process could start with turnover-prone quarterback Elvis Grbac. Grbac, whom the Ravens signed in March as a free agent to a five-year, $30 million deal, has a one-year escape clause that allows the Ravens the option of honoring only the first year at $5 million and then releasing the nine-year veteran.

Billick refused to address the status of specific players, but admitted that change is needed to comply with the league's restrictive cap.

"There's going to be a great deal of conjecture about where we're at," Billick said. "Yes, we are in a situation where clearly we're going to have to regroup a little bit. We feel we're in an excellent position to do so, but clearly there is going to be some change, it's absolutely unavoidable. How much? It's conjecture at best. We have a lot of guys that are going to have to decide what it is they want to do."

Grbac, who threw more interceptions (21) than touchdowns (16) this season, did not make himself available to the media yesterday. Following Sunday's season-ending 27-10 rout at Pittsburgh in the AFC playoffs, Grbac left the door open that he might not be a Raven for long when he said, "We'll see."

Billick reiterated that Grbac is the Ravens' starting quarterback and said the Ravens need to improve the athletic ability around him.

"I have no reason to believe that Elvis doesn't want to be here, doesn't appreciate what we've done here and doesn't understand our support for him," Billick said.

Just how much regrouping the Ravens do is the big question. The Ravens are a veteran-laden team. Massive defensive tackle Tony Siragusa formally retired following Sunday's game and will free a portion of his $4 million in cap room.

The 6-foot-3, 340-pounder's huge spot in the lineup may be platooned by free agent Lional Dalton, veteran Larry Webster or promising third-year man Kelly Gregg.

Other Ravens' retirements could be forthcoming. Pro Bowl free safety Rod Woodson turns 37 in March. Defensive end Rob Burnett, who struggled with injuries (fractured hand and strained calf) this season, just completed his 12th season and will be 35 at the start of next season.

Pro Bowl tight end Shannon Sharpe mentioned retirement as a possibility after Sunday's game. Sharpe has three Super Bowl rings and is the NFL's all-time leader in receptions (697) and yardage (8,660) among tight ends. Given his highly-decorated career, it appears Sharpe has little more to accomplish as a player.

The 33-year-old Sharpe said after Sunday's blowout, which saw the Ravens generate just 150 yards of total offense, that he might retire if the Ravens don't do something about the offense this offseason.

Free agency may claim some established Ravens. The most prominent of the team's 13 free agents are cornerback Duane Starks, safety Corey Harris, punter Kyle Richardson and Dalton. The rest of the Ravens' free-agent pool is basically expendable.

They include running back Terry Allen, reserve offensive lineman Orlando Bobo, backup quarterback Randall Cunningham, long snapper Dale Hellestrae, injury-plagued wide receiver Patrick Johnson, safety Carnell Lake, cornerback James Trapp, running back Moe Williams and reserve offensive lineman Sammy Williams.

The offensive line is the Ravens biggest concern. The right side of the line was nothing short of a disaster this season. The Ravens should be able to land something in April's NFL Draft, especially with their second and third-round selections, and should be bolstered by the return of Leon Searcy, who was lost for the season with a torn triceps in training camp.

Star running back Jamal Lewis, who blew out his left knee in training camp on Aug. 8, may not be ready for next season. Billick said Lewis is a "long way" from being back where he needs to be. If the status of other players who have recently had ACL injuries are any indication such as Atlanta's Jamal Anderson and Denver's Terrell Davis Lewis' injury could be a two-year problem.

That would leave the Ravens in a quandary. Lewis was replaced this season by a three-man committee, a group that still could not match the numbers Lewis posted his rookie season (2,038 all-purpose yards).

"Some of the decisions certain players will have to make is, 'Do I want to come back to the Baltimore Ravens?,'" Billick said. "'Do I want to continue to play pro football for what I am going to be paid?' And that ultimately is going to be their decision. We're going to try to put together as much of the nucleus of this team as we can, but we are going to go through change."

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