Agent: Thomas likely headed for free agency

An exit strategy appears to be unfolding between All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomas and the Baltimore Ravens that would make the seven-year veteran available next month as an unrestricted FA on the open market, where the 49ers are sure to take a shot at him. Thomas' agent, Bus Cook, said he has had no communication with the Ravens, and says of Thomas' situation, "you got to do what you got to do."

The Ravens don't seem to have the necessary salary-cap space to make Thomas their franchise player. It's a $7.2 million price tag that would require cutting former Pro Bowl running back Jamal Lewis and, possibly others, or restructuring contracts to clear enough space.

No move is afoot on any of those fronts at this time, according to Cook and the representatives of other veteran players. Lewis is likely to be cut before a $5 million roster bonus is due March 3.

The Ravens are reportedly between $3.3 million and $3.6 million under the salary cap limit of $109 million. The league deadline to designate Thomas with the franchise tag is next Thursday at 4 p.m.

Meanwhile, team officials haven't been negotiating with Cook on a long-term contract extension.

"I haven't really had any communication with them at this time," Cook said in a telephone interview. "A.D. would like to stay in Baltimore, but you got to do what you go to do and teams have to do what they have to do. It's a business. That's the way it goes."

Thomas would become an unrestricted free agent if the team doesn't franchise him by next week, a hefty cost that would pay him the average of the top five linebacker salaries and make him the highest paid player on the Ravens next season.

If Thomas makes it to the open market, he's expecting a major financial windfall that could include a signing bonus in excess of $12 million.

"I would think A.D. would be at the top of most teams' lists," Cook said of the former sixth-round pick from Southern Mississippi who has 28 sacks and four interceptions over the past three seasons. Thomas had 83 tackles, 11 sacks and one interception last season.

It would be difficult for the Ravens to compete financially with potential Thomas suitors that have a lot of salary cap flexibility like the 49ers ($37.6 million below the cap), New England Patriots ($26.6 million), Cleveland Browns ($26.6 million) and Green Bay Packers ($24.8 million).

The 49ers, particularly, are very interested in Thomas. He would be a nice fit on the edge in the 3-4 defense envisioned by coach Mike Nolan. Thomas played three seasons in Nolan's 3-4 defense in Baltimore, developing nicely in the system into the player he is today. Nolan surely knows the ins and outs of what Thomas has to offer and can gauge how much of San Francisco's cap largesse he would be willing to offer him.

"The market sets itself every year," Thomas told ESPN on Thursday. "Hopefully, Baltimore will step up and get the deal done so I can retire a Baltimore Raven. But it's still a business. They're going to do what's best for them, and I got to do what is best for me."

The Ravens have other concerns, including: trying to retain other free agents such as fullback Ovie Mughelli, offensive tackle Tony Pashos or hard-nosed reserve outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, a potential replacement for Thomas, and keeping restricted free agents like return specialist B.J. Sams while leaving enough money for their rookie pool.

It's considered doubtful that Pashos will be back based on his strong season and the high price he could command due to a thin free agent class of tackles.

Thomas will turn 30 before next season. The Ravens said they haven't decided whether or not to franchise the versatile 6-foot-2, 270-pounder, but general manager Ozzie Newsome has made it clear that the team "won't mortgage its future," to keep the roster intact.

If the Ravens cut Lewis, who's due a $5 million base salary next season, they would be able to reduce his cap figure from $11.6 million to $3.3 million against the 2007 salary cap for a savings of $8.3 million. Even that might not be enough, though.

During the Thursday interview, Thomas acknowledged that the team's opportunity to win another Super Bowl is shrinking.

"With this team, I think you have a one-to-two year window tops because you have older guys -- like Jonathan Ogden, Ray (Lewis) and Steve McNair -- who are the key guys," Thomas said. "But they're still playing at a high level."

At this point in his career, Thomas may opt instead to sign one final big contract with a team on the rise such as the 49ers.

And now it's looking more and more like the Ravens might give him that chance.

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