No franchise tag for Jamal Lewis (UPDATE)

OWINGS MILLS -- Jamal Lewis' end run out of Baltimore may have been signaled Wednesday as the Ravens surprisingly opted not to assign the franchise tag to the former Pro Bowl running back. The decision caught the Ravens' all-time leading rusher off-guard, according to his agent.

Now, Lewis will become an unrestricted free agent on March 3, boosting an already crowded running back market that features Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin James, DeShaun Foster, Ahman Green and Baltimore backup Chester Taylor.

While Lewis, 26, is free to sign with any team, the Ravens are keeping communication open with him. There are scenarios where the Ravens and Lewis could reunite if they don't sign another running back or he doesn't find a situation he likes better.

"We will still consider the possibility of talking with Jamal about a long-term contract with us," general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a written statement.

The decision follows Lewis' worst season, which was preceded by four months in a federal prison and two months in a halfway house for a cocaine conspiracy plea bargain. The 2003 NFL Offensive Player of the Year also underwent surgery on his right ankle.

Franchising Lewis would have required a one-year tender offer and salary cap figure of $6.085 million. The Ravens are trying to retain several defensive starters, sign a veteran quarterback to compete with or supplant Kyle Boller and negotiate a major deal with safety Ed Reed.

The Ravens are expected to explore the possibility of re-signing Taylor, whom several other teams are interested in, and consider the other free agents. They could also draft a running back like USC's LenDale White or Memphis' DeAngelo Williams with the 13th overall pick.

"I think we were both surprised when Ozzie told us," said Mitch Frankel, Lewis' agent. "They told us they would like to sign him to a long-term deal, but there's been no offer from the Ravens since Jamal was a rookie. It's all in their hands.

"Jamal made it clear to Ozzie last week directly that if they franchised him he would accept it gladly with no misunderstandings, holdout or problems. Jamal told Ozzie there would be no bitterness and he would be happy."

However, Lewis complained a lot during the season. He vented about reduced carries and a lack of communication with head coach Brian Billick while acknowledging that he was concerned about getting injured during a contract year.

"I think Jamal has mixed emotions between him wanting to come back and finding himself with the opportunity to be free and see who else wants him," Frankel said. "He always thought he would finish his career in Baltimore and be a Raven for life. Now, he's unsure where he'll be next season."

Lewis rushed for a career-low 906 yards, and his production has declined steadily since gaining 2,066 yards in 2003 for the second-best single season in NFL history.

"I would love to have Jamal back," center Mike Flynn said. "To me, what happened last offseason -- the surgery, prison and house arrest -- was the reason for the decline in production more than anything else.

"I think he's still a great back with a lot of yardage left in him. If he's not back, I'm going to miss Jamal."

Lewis' outspoken candor often created controversy, but his words drew admiration from teammates.

"He didn't run away from controversy, didn't hide," linebacker Bart Scott said. "He stood up like a man. He answered tough questions and was honest, sometimes to his own detriment. What I always liked about him is he wasn't a flashy guy and he put it on the line for his teammates."

With a career-low 3.4 yards per carry, Lewis' trademark burst and power weren't what they used to be with only a few flashes of his old form.

"I'm still strong, still able to run the football," Lewis said after the season finale. "I'm not over the hill. I'm sure I can get a long-term deal anywhere."

Several players expressed regret at Lewis' potential departure and wondered where the team goes from here.

"There are only so many Jamals in this league that demand eight men in the box," Scott said. "Jamal is a special player who did amazing things with his combination of speed and power.

"If he's not back with us, he's going to make some team very happy. He's had a couple of down years, but I think he's due to explode."


In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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