Rice is seeking a lucrative long-term contract after gaining more total yards from scrimmage than anyone in the NFL with 5,885 yards over the past three seasons. His production, age, durability and strong character suggest that he should ultimately emerge as one of the highest-paid running backs in the NFL.
However, Rice is expected to be designated as the Ravens' franchise player today at a cost of $7.7 million. And that figure would come in the form of a one-year tender that includes no signing bonus and no guaranteed money for the future if the 25-year-old suffers a serious injury.
It's been widely rumored that Rice wants to be paid in the neighborhood of Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson, the highest-paid back in the league. Peterson is playing under a landmark seven-year, $100 million contract that includes $36 million in guaranteed money that he signed last year prior to tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.
When asked about the Peterson contract demand rumor, Rice's agent, Todd France, told the Times: "Maybe it's because people assume since Ray has led the NFL in yards from scrimmage since becoming a full-time starter in 2009 that he should be the highest-paid running back in the NFL. Regardless of where it came from or who said what, I won't comment on any specifics of our negotiations except to say my focus is to have an amicable negotiation process that results in a long-term contract for our client."
The Ravens have made it clear that they prefer to sign Rice to a long-term deal, but nothing is imminent at this time.
The clock begins ticking as soon as the Ravens place the franchise tag on Rice. Under NFL rules governing franchise players, the Ravens have until a July 16 deadline this year to sign him to a long-term deal.
Otherwise, Rice will have to play the entire season under the franchise tag.
The Ravens have a tradition of using the franchise tag and later signing players to long-term deals, including Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and former cornerback Chris McAlister.
"We have used the franchise tag only so we can get a long-term deal," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "We would like Ray Rice to have a long career in Baltimore. If we have to franchise him, that would be the reason why. Hopefully, we won't get to that."
It's up to Rice to decide when he wants to sign the franchise tender. Under NFL rules as an unsigned franchise player, Rice wouldn't be required to attend any offseason activities, training camp or games until he reports and signs.
As a former second-round draft pick from Rutgers, Rice was paid $600,000 in the final year of his rookie deal.
So, the $7.7 million represents a significant raise. If no long-term deal can be worked out, he would make $452,941 per game check over the course of 17 weeks during the season.
NFL teams are traditionally reluctant to commit major dollars to running backs.
Players like Peterson or Tennessee Titans star Chris Johnson are the exceptions, not the rule.
Johnson is playing under a six-year, $55.26 million deal that includes $30 million in guaranteed money with $20 million of that figure paid through a signing bonus.
"When you get a back like Ray Rice, you have to ask yourself, ‘Does he have a second contract in him?' and clearly he does," said former Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns general manager Mike Lombardi, an analyst for NFL Network. "What I think you have to do is come up with the best contract you can that pays him like one of the top five backs in the league and try to structure a deal that fits right there. I'm sure he wants to be the top paid back.
"I'm sure they'll want to look at Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson's deals and find some middle ground. You've got to keep the blue-chip players like him. He's so versatile and talented. He carries their offense at times. He's more than just a runner. He finishes games."
Rice is the only running back in the history of the league to rush for over 1,300 yards and gain 700 or more receiving yards twice during his first four seasons.
He rushed for a career-high 204 yards on 29 carries against the Browns on a soggy field in Cleveland.
Rice never complained about his contract status, avoiding distractions and has emerged as a popular leader in the locker room.
"To be a great leader, you have to be one of the better players in the locker room," said quarterback Joe Flacco, who's in negotiations with the Ravens for a contract extension as he enters the final year of his rookie deal. "You have to go out there and prove it on the field, and Ray has done that. He goes out there, he plays, he leads by example. Every now and then, he has a little bit to interject."
Rice rushed for a career-high 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, also leading the Ravens with 76 receptions for 704 yards and three touchdowns. His catch total was 19 more than wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who ranked second on the team with 57 receptions.
Plus, Rice broke the Ravens' single-season touchdown record with 15 total scores last season.
When the Ravens needed to beat the Cincinnati Bengals on the road in a regular-season finale to win the AFC North division title to clinch a first-round bye, Rice rushed for 191 yards and two touchdowns.
It was a signature game for him.
"Ray Rice can do everything," said former NFL safety Matt Bowen, an analyst for the National Football Post. "He can catch the ball, he can block, he makes people miss, he runs people over. You can ride him down the stretch. In Baltimore, that's Ray Rice. He's a special back.
"Ray's a top-five player at the position. He's got a great low center of gravity. He's physical, he's tough. You've got to have that as a running back. Look at that Cleveland game last year where they just ran Ray right down their throats. He makes the play you have to have."
Drafted in the first round out of Oklahoma in 2007, one season before Rice entered the league, Peterson has rushed for 6,752 career yards and 64 touchdowns with 137 receptions for 1,309 yards and three touchdowns.
In one less season with only three as the full-time starter after supplanting Willis McGahee in 2009 following his rookie season, Rice has rushed for 4,377 yards and 24 touchdowns with 250 receptions for 2,335 yards and five touchdowns.
Over those four seasons, Rice has made $2.86 million with a $1.1 million signing bonus as a rookie.
Peterson was already making $10.72 million under his original rookie deal when the Vikings signed him to his new deal on Sept. 10, 2011. His contract averages $14.2 million per year and includes a $12 million signing bonus.
Johnson's contract averages $13.49 million per year.
So, getting Rice to that sort of compensation level would involve a significant combination of signing bonus and other guaranteed money on a multi-year deal.
"Ray Rice is a terrific player with the ability to run inside and outside, he's effective on screens and is really a great back as a runner and a receiver," former Houston Texans and Washington Redskins general manager Charlie Casserly said. "He's an integral part of the offense. How do you pay him? You have to accept the risk going in that there's a chance of injury and you pay him what you feel like is fairly good market value. You hope for the best and you expect the worst-case scenario.
"There are so many unknowns, and durability is a big thing to consider. You have to wonder what's the breaking point as far as number of hits. You just have to understand that's part of it. At the end of the day, that doesn't deter the contract negotiations that much. It comes down wanting to get the best play on the field. Yes, you can keep franchising the player until it's no longer worth it to do so. I don't think that's what they have in mind with Rice."
Peterson's first-year salary of $8.25 million was guaranteed for skill, injury and salary cap. In 2013, $3.75 million of his $11.25 million base salary was guaranteed for injury.
That number goes up to $7.75 million and is guaranteed for skill, injury and cap if he's on the roster for the first day of the league year.
Johnson held out last year, eventually signing his contract on Sept. 1, 2011. He wound up having a poor season , rushing for only 1,047 yards and four touchdowns.
In four NFL seasons, Johnson has rushed for 5,645 yards and 38 touchdowns with 194 catches for 1,426 yards and four touchdowns. Three years ago, Johnson rushed for a career-high 2,006 yards.
Johnson and Peterson were never assigned the franchise tag. They were both signed to contract extensions before they got to the point where they were eligible for the tag.
"Yeah, I definitely prefer long-term over franchise tag," Rice told the Times days after the Ravens' AFC championship game loss to the New England Patriots. "I'm not going to complain about the franchise tag, either. It puts yourself in a position where you play that year out and guys have done it, but I prefer the long-term. That's what Baltimore, the city, the fans, they would love to know that Ray Rice is going to be here, not just one year, but for many years to come."
Last season, Rice became the fourth player in NFL history to record three consecutive seasons of 1,200 rushing yards and at least 500 receiving yards. He joined some exclusive company: Marshall Faulk, Thurman Thomas and Priest Holmes.
Rice and Faulk are the only players to rush for 1,000 yards and hit the 700-yard receiving milestone in two separate seasons. Faulk did it four times.
"I would say Ray and Matt Forte are the closest thing to Marshall Faulk in the game right now," Bowen said. "And Marshall Faulk is one of the best football players I've ever seen."
There are teams around the league that are averse to paying a running back big-time money. They prefer the franchise tag in cases like Rice and Forte, the Chicago Bears' star runner.
Rice seems to be a good risk, though, because he's young, healthy and talented.
For the Ravens to pay Rice like Peterson and Johnson would make a statement that they believe he's one of, if not the best running back in the game.
"The position overall is losing its value and that's reflective in the contracts, and I think more and more general managers are looking at the beating these guys take," Bowen said. "Those hits in the hole are like car accidents. Once a running back loses his burst through the hole, they're not getting their return on their investment. They worry that these guys won't last.
"It's a tough thing. I feel bad for these guys. I want to see Ray Rice and Matt Forte get paid. They have proven themselves. They have the numbers. Unfortunately, I think you're going to see the franchise tag more and more for running backs. Even if they do franchise him, Ray Rice is still a special player."
Ravens to cut Carr, Evans
Foxworth expected to exit roster, too
OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens plan to cut veteran cornerback Chris Carr, and have informed him of their decision.
The AFC North champions also plan to part ways with wide receiver Lee Evans and cornerback Domonique Foxworth.
Foxworth met with general manager Ozzie Newsome on Thursday and will take a physical on a surgically-repaired knee in a few days. A member of the NFL Players Association executive committee, Foxworth could also opt to retire and concentrate on his career in the union leadership.
Carr was due a $2.5 million base salary and carried a $3.45 million salary-cap figure for next season.
He signed a three-year, $14 million contract last year that included a $3.8 million signing bonus.
He was due base salaries of $3 million and $4 million in 2013 and 2014.
Carr spoke Thursday with Newsome and coach John Harbaugh.
"Thanks everyone, love the team and the city," Carr wrote on his Twitter account. "It's a business, I think it was the best for both parties. Talked to Ozzie and John, much respect. I will miss my teammates the most, boy we had fun!"
Carr dealt with hamstring and back injuries that limited him to nine games last season after starting every game the previous year.
His production dipped from 67 tackles, two interceptions, eight pass deflections and three forced fumbles in 2010.
Last season, he started one game and recorded 19 tackles, one sack, three pass deflections and no interceptions.
Under his $27 million contract, Foxworth is due a $5.6 million base salary and an $8.6 million salary-cap figure for next season.
His release isn't regarded as imminent, but is expected before free agency begins March 13.
Evans dropped a potential game-winning touchdown pass in the AFC championship game against the New England Patriots.
He's due a $3.275 million base salary and carries a $5.607 million salary-cap figure. And a $1 million roster bonus is due March 18 if he's still on the team.
He caught only four passes for 74 yards and no touchdowns during the regular season after being acquired via a trade from the Buffalo Bills in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick.
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