Ravens prepare for possibility Free Agency

OWINGS MILLS - The pending, anticipated resolution of the lockout isn't expected to necessarily restore order to the NFL universe. Whenever the work stoppage ends, there will be plenty of business to conduct as transactions are likely to unfold at a frenetic pace.

"I hope free agency is not as chaotic as expected," Baltimore Ravens veteran cornerback Chris Carr wrote in an e-mail. "I hope teams have a grace period to resign their players, then free agency for veterans, followed by the undrafted rookies. Obviously, this will be a condensed version of usual circumstances but for the people involved I think this would make things go smoother.

"Due to time constraints, free agency is going to be less than ideal regardless of the structure. However, if there are no grace periods, then it will be very detrimental to some teams and players: especially the undrafted rookies." Plus, the pool of free agents is going to multiply significantly as the league plans to restore the old rules where players achieve unrestricted status after four NFL seasons instead of the six years it operated under last year.

For the Ravens, that means the following players won't be restricted free agents and will be free to sign with any team: offensive linemen Marshal Yanda, Jared Gaither, Chris Chester and Tony Moll, fullback Le'Ron McClain, strong safety Dawan Landry and cornerback Josh Wilson. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata would be a restricted free agent, but he's the Ravens' designated franchise player.

The rest of the Ravens' unrestricted free agent class includes backup quarterback Marc Bulger, linebacker Prescott Burgess, cornerbacks Chris Carr, Fabian Washington and Josh Wilson, long snapper Kevin Houser and wide receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte' Stallworth. The Ravens also might cut running back Willis McGahee, who's due a $6 million base salary and isn't inclined to accept a paycut. And Gaither, Washington, Houshmandzadeh, Stallworth, Moll and Houser are all not expected to return. Burgess' status is up in the air. A versatile, gritty blocker capable of lining up at either right tackle or right guard, Yanda is expected to be the Ravens' top free agent target. Team officials have told Yanda they intend to sign him to a long-term contract, but are aware that it could be an expensive undertaking. "We've got one real major issue," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said earlier this year when asked about Yanda. "That's going to be a priority for us. I think he's a good player obviously, a very good player. He's one of my favorite guys. He knows that.

"As a coach, you want those guys back. Other than that, we should be in pretty good shape. I think the foundation is your offensive line on offense, no doubt, your quarterback and your offensive line is where it starts."

A former third-round draft pick from Iowa, Yanda played last season under a $1.684 million restricted tender. Ideally, the Ravens would like to shift Yanda back inside to his natural guard position. "When you look around the league, good, young offensive linemen are at a premium," former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann said in a telephone interview. "You should do what you can to keep Yanda unless the numbers get outrageous. Keep in mind, it's going to be mayhem when free agency starts.

"If I'm him, I have a number in mind and I'm sure the Ravens have a number in mind, too. The Ravens and he should find that middle ground, sign him and move on to the next guy. There's no time to dilly-dally. He's the guy. To me, that's a valuable football player." Landry could command a high salary on the open market and isn't expected to return. Although Landry recorded a career-high 111 tackles last season, the Ravens have a tradition of letting their safeties depart as free agents. That includes Jim Leonhard, Will Demps and Kim Herring.

The Ravens could replace Landry with either Tom Zbikowski or Haruki Nakamura. "In Dawan's case, he's the kind of player who can look around and be an asset to somebody," Theismann said. "He's going to start somewhere. You hate to break up a tandem like him and Ed Reed, but, if you're Dawan, you pursue the opportunity. If you're the Ravens, you make your best offer knowing full well that he could leave." The Ravens expect McClain, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, to test free agency.

McClain has lobbied unsuccessfully to become more involved on offense since rushing for a career-high 902 yards and 10 touchdowns two seasons ago with his role as a ball-carrier dwindling more each year.

The Ravens could let McClain leave and possibly replace him with an upper echelon free agent fullback of interest like the Houston Texans' Vonta Leach or the Cleveland Browns' Lawrence Vickers.

"LeRon McClain is a ball carrier, too, he's not just a fullback," Harbaugh said. "The market is going to declare that a little bit. I would love to have Le'Ron signed right now, too. I think he's going to be interested to see what the market is going to bear for him. There's so much uncertainty right now. It's just hard to predict." The Ravens also have veteran fullback Jason McKie under contract.

"Wherever he goes, he's not going to touch the ball because he's a fullback," Theismann said. "If he understands his role, the Ravens would love to have him. I learned a long time ago that nobody is irreplaceable. If I was him, I would say, ‘I would love to stay a Raven and work for Steve Bisciotti and John Harbaugh and work in a great organization that supports its people.' You've got to look at how they treat their players and your chances to win a Super Bowl." A former starting left tackle Gaither missed all of last season with a thoracic disk injury in his upper back.

The enigmatic former University of Maryland standout also reported underweight to training camp. If he's unrestricted, he's not expected to be retained.

"I think he's a role player for them if he's back, not a starter," Theismann said. "If he's damaged goods, they've got to find somebody else to play there. If I'm him, I take any offer they put on the table." The Ravens have a tough choice to make at cornerback.

Both Wilson and Carr had good seasons last year. Carr was more consistent as he intercepted two passes and forced three fumbles, but Wilson generated more big plays. He intercepted three passes, returning one for a touchdown to win an overtime game against the Houston Texans.

"Josh played lights-out last year," said Washington, who was benched and replaced by Wilson in the starting lineup. "He was legit." There's been a lot of speculation about whether Bulger will emerge as a starter elsewhere after backing up quarterback Joe Flacco last season for $3.8 million.

However, Bulger got along well with Flacco and might prefer to remain in Baltimore as a backup. Ideally, the Ravens would like to have him back. "In Marc's situation, the best thing for him is to be a backup because no matter where he goes he'll be a backup," Theismann said. "He's in a system that suits his style as a pocket passer. He's a good guy to have in that division because you need two good quarterbacks. I think the Ravens would be smart to sign him and he would be smart to stay."

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