Ravens prepared for free agent market

Bonus Free Story. OWINGS MILLS – Although the free agent market casts a murky picture with the unexpected exclusion of receivers Terrell Owens and Dennis Northcutt, the Baltimore Ravens don't lack clarity on what actions they'll take before the veteran signing period begins next week.<br><br> Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said the club will retain all of its restricted free agents and exclusive-rights free agents.

The deadline to submit qualifying offers and minimum salaries for players in those respective categories is next Tuesday, one day before free agency begins.

Newsome said the Ravens will assign tenders today to its restricted free agents, linebacker Ed Hartwell, offensive guard Bennie Anderson, offensive lineman Casey Rabach, long snapper Joe Maese and defensive end Marques Douglas, but declined to specify what tender levels would be assigned.

"We will tender all our restricted free agents and our exclusive-rights free agents," Newsome said. "Those are our guys."

The NFL Players Association released the tender numbers, which are up slightly from last season. 

The low tender (right of first refusal) increases from $605,000 to $628,000. The middle tender (first-round compensation) increases from $1.318 million to $1.368 million. And the high tender (first- and third-round compensation) has moved up from $1.758 million to $1.824 million.

Agent Harold Lewis said he anticipates the Ravens will give the middle tender to Hartwell, who finished second on the team in tackles to All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis with 140 stops along with three sacks and an interception.

"If they give him the low tender and all someone has to do is give up a fourth-round pick to sign him, Ed will get a ton of offers," Lewis said.

Anderson has been rated the top restricted free agent at his position in several publications.

The Ravens' exclusive-rights free agents are safety Will Demps, wide receiver Randy Hymes, offensive tackle Damion Cook, nose guard Maake Kemoeatu, fullback Alan Ricard and cornerback Ray Walls. To retain their rights, the team merely has to make the minimum contract offer.

Meanwhile, Newsome said the club continues to pursue a long-term contract for Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister, the team's franchise player. That tag entails paying him a one-year, $7.1 million salary.

"One thing I know is Chris is going to be a Raven this year," Newsome said. "Chris may decide to just play for the tender again. He has that right. From our position, we want to get a long-term deal with Chris."

Meanwhile, San Francisco's Owens and Cleveland's Northcutt won't be unrestricted free agents after their representatives failed to file paperwork needed to void the remaining years on their contracts.

A Pro Bowl selection, Owens was openly recruited by Ray Lewis in Hawaii. The 49ers may seek to trade Owens, or a grievance may be filed. Owens' agent, David Joseph, didn't return a call seeking comment.

Browns executive Carmen Policy announced that the NFL Management Council verified that Northcutt remains under contract through the 2006 season. An option in the Browns' leading receiver's original seven-year contract wasn't exercised by agent Jerome Stanley before a Feb. 19 deadline.

Newsome said the Ravens won't be averse to looking at restricted free agents except for those with first-round tenders. Tennessee wide receiver Justin McCareins is one of the top restricted players.

The Ravens are negotiating with several of their own unrestricted free agents, including tackle Orlando Brown, kicker Matt Stover, center Mike Flynn and receiver Marcus Robinson. Outside linebacker Adalius Thomas has said he would like to see what the market bears, but, all things being equal, would like to stay in Baltimore.

"By next week, we'll have a very good idea of which of our own guys we'll be able to sign and which guys we don't think we are going to be able to retain," Newsome said.

The Ravens conducted a personnel meeting Thursday that included incoming owner Steve Bisciotti as well as outgoing owner Art Modell.

The NFL has raised the salary cap to $80.5 million, and Baltimore reportedly leads the NFL in money under the cap with $23.03 million.

"That helped everybody else in the league," Newsome said. "It didn't help us much. It might allow us to retain some of our own free agents as we head into the season." 

NOTES: Newsome said former Ravens linebacker O.J. Brigance, a special-teams standout on the Super Bowl team, has accepted the position of director of player development formerly held by Earnest Byner. …. The Ravens made no announcement regarding whether Ray Lewis will require surgery on his right shoulder, which was examined Thursday. Lewis wore a harness for the final month of the season, but was healthy enough to lead the AFC with six tackles in the Pro Bowl.

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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