Ravens franchise McAlister

OWINGS MILLS – Insuring their multi-million dollar investment in Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister, the Baltimore Ravens designated him as their franchise player before the NFL deadline for the second consecutive year.<br><br> Just as McAlister blanketed elite receivers like the St. Louis Rams' Torry Holt and the San Francisco 49ers' Terrell Owens last season, the Ravens have sound coverage on their former first-round draft pick.

The Ravens have been unable to reach a long-term contract extension with McAlister, 26, and assigned him the non-exclusive franchise tag to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. 

"This really doesn't prevent us from continuing on with what we're trying to do, which is reach a long-term agreement with Chris," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "All the parties recognize that, and I'm still confident we'll get an agreement in place."

If no new accord is negotiated before the season, the Ravens would owe McAlister a one-year $7.1 million salary, which represents a 20-percent increase from his $5.962 million salary last year.

The Ravens can afford the impact to their salary cap with a reported league-high $23.03 million underneath the league's $80.5 million salary cap.

"Not a big surprise, we expected this to happen," said Mitch Frankel, McAlister's agent. "Chris is a great, young player and they wanted to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. We sat down at the combine on Sunday, but were unable to get anything accomplished.

"Right now, I would have to say I'm not optimistic about getting a long-term deal done with where we are and they are in terms of numbers. It's a substantial difference."

McAlister will account for approximately $7.109 million against the Ravens' total salary-cap figure after being selected to his first Pro Bowl last season.

"We're in a unique situation where truly we can absorb the cap hit," Billick said. "It's not in Chris' best interest for us to have the franchise tag on him every season. That's a lot of money. We're fortunate in our cap situation that, if indeed we need to keep the franchise designation on him, we can afford it. 

"He has indicated he wants to retire as a Raven and we would like nothing more than for that to happen. The numbers just have to add up right."

The numbers haven't to this point, though, according to Frankel.

The primary difference of opinion is believed to be the signing bonus. Frankel declined to confirm whether McAlister is seeking a signing bonus between $16 and $19 million.

Because McAlister was given the non-exclusive tag, he still has the right to solicit offers from other teams. However, the Ravens retain the right to match any offer sheet or would be owed two first-round draft picks as compensation from that club if they opted to let him depart.

Under the exclusive franchise tag that the 49ers assigned to linebacker Julian Peterson, no other club is allowed to negotiate with him.

"By not placing the exclusive tag on him, it helps Chris find his market value," Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said from the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Frankel said he'll meet with McAlister today to discuss whether his client wants him to initiate talks with other teams.

"We'll figure out a game plan for what he wants me to do," Frankel said.

Under league rules, the two parties can continue to negotiate until March 17. However, if a deal was reached between March 17 and July 14, the team would lose the right to use the franchise tag for the length of McAlister's contract.

"As we've said for the last year, our intent is to make sure Chris McAlister stays a Raven," Newsome said. "The goal is to reach a long-term contract with him and his agent."

This provision of the collective bargaining agreement grants additional time to negotiate.

"The door is open for both sides, as it has been all along," Frankel said.

A first-round selection in 1999, McAlister intercepted three passes last season and deflected 16 passes.

After being benched prior to a game against the San Diego Chargers for violating team rules, McAlister promised to rededicate himself to football.

McAlister bottled up Holt for three receptions and 38 yards and Owens for three receptions and 38 yards, holding Cincinatti's Chad Johnson to two catches for 15 yards.

He intercepted a pass from league co-MVP Steve McNair in a playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans.

Billick said he expects a similar arrangement with McAlister to last year when the defensive back attended mandatory minicamps and trained on his own the rest of the time.

"Having been through this before, we have very clear parameters and he's shown he can prepare the way he needs to," Billick said. "I'm very comfortable with it."

Shortly after the season, McAlister reaffirmed that he would like to remain in Baltimore regardless of the outcome of contract discussions.

"I'll be happy either way," McAlister said when asked about being franchised again. "The bottom line is I'm going to be back."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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