Ravens unlikely to dive into free agency

OWINGS MILLS -- As the clock struck midnight and the annual free agency spending extravaganza launched early this morning, the Baltimore Ravens represented an exception to the NFL landscape. Unlike their league brethren who are poised to commit millions of dollars toward a free agent class bereft of many proven athletes, the Ravens' involvement isn't likely to be expensive or proactive.

The defending AFC North champions are likely to quietly monitor the market's spending habits and watch as All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomas and offensive tackle Tony Pashos depart without submitting a competing offer.
The Ravens' top priority remains striking a deal with former Pro Bowl running back Jamal Lewis, who was cut Wednesday rather than pay him a $5 million roster bonus.
They'll maintain contact with free agents like linebacker Jarret Johnson and fullback Ovie Mughelli with the understanding that they would like to have the opportunity to make an offer if the players are garnering heavy interest.
That approach reflects the Ravens' financial situation as they rank in the bottom third of the league for salary-cap room with roughly $11.3 million available to spend after creating $8.3 million of space by cutting Lewis.
That isn't nearly enough to match war chests with teams like the San Francisco 49ers ($37.6 million available) or the Arizona Cardinals and Buffalo Bills, who are both $30 million under the cap.
The NFL salary cap has risen 27 ½ percent from $85.5 million in 2005 to $109 million this year, and several teams have more than $20 million in salary cap space. Yet with a weak free agent class overall and the requirement that teams spend up to $92 million on player salaries in 2007 under the collective bargaining agreement, teams might wind up paying Bentley prices for a bunch of Saturns.
"Those first two or three days, yes, it probably could happen where some players could exceed their value in the market, but the team that is paying it feels like that player is worth it," Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "I was talking to a lot of other GMs, and last year we were saying, 'Oh my goodness, where is this market going?' Then after two or three days, the market settled down."
The Ravens' wait-and-see approach was forecast by coach Brian Billick days after the team's playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
"I Idon't know that our fans can anticipate a huge amount of presence in free agency because I think we are a team that is very capable of sustaining what we have right now and going forward, notwithstanding the draft itself," Billick said.
For the Ravens, negotiating efforts are presently confined to signing Lewis rather than actively exploring other running back options like Ahman Green, Dominic Rhodes, Chris Brown and, possibly, Corey Dillon.
It's unclear how much money it will take to sign Lewis, who made $6 million last season including a $5 million signing bonus.
"I'm not willing to discuss specific numbers from a terms standpoint, but, from Jamal's standpoint, he's open to a one-year or multi-year deal," said Mitch Frankel, Lewis' agent. "There have been offers back and forth, but nothing mutually attractive yet."
Frankel said that Lewis would listen to inquiries from other clubs, but his first choice is to return to Baltimore for an eighth season.
Lewis was scheduled to visit the Denver Broncos last season, but canceled his trip and signed with Baltimore.
"The preference is to get a deal done with the Ravens, but if Jamal is free, he has to listen," Frankel said.
While Thomas is expected to garner heavy interest from the 49ers, New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns and New York Jets and receive guaranteed money between $15 million and $18 million, Pashos could be a target for the Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins or Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Ravens could also face competition for Johnson and Mughelli, who are both considered relative bargains.
Johnson might be a solid fallback option for 49ers coach Mike Nolan if he's unable to sign Thomas. Johnson's agent, Jimmy Sexton, is already marketing Johnson aggressively.
A versatile 6-foot-1, 255-pounder, Mughelli is expected to be pursued by the Cardinals who need a strong lead blocker for featured runner Edgerrin James. Mughelli doesn't have any visits currently planned and is scheduled to talk to students today at Woodlawn High School.
Because so many players were franchised, including Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs, Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel, New Orleans Saints defensive end Charles Grant, Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Justin Smith, Lions defensive tackle Cory Redding and Seahawks kicker Josh Brown, along with so many quality players receiving new contracts days before free agency began, it's a depressed market devoid of many true elite players.
The top free agents available include Buffalo Bills cornerback Nate Clements, Thomas, Bengals offensive guard Eric Steinbach, San Diego Chargers offensive guard Kris Dielman and Atlanta Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney.
"We start out and there are all of these great marquee players and as you go along you see all the marquee players disappear," Tennessee Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt told reporters at the NFL scouting combine. "Everybody kind of has visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads and, all of a sudden, a lot of the difference-makers aren't there."
If several Ravens depart in free agency, Newsome is banking on the team's strong tradition of obtaining talent through the draft or with secondary free agents to replenish the roster.
"The way we approach it, we come to a threshold of what we think the player's value is in Baltimore, and when it goes beyond that, we don't mind them going out the door," Newsome said. "If we lose them, we feel like we can go out and find some more."
NOTES: The agent for free agent running back Musa Smith said he has held preliminary discussions with the Ravens. : "We've had good conversations with Baltimore and Musa is healthy now," Jack Reale said.
Drafted to replace Lewis, Smith has become a fixture on injured reserve and has rushed for just 232 career yards and two touchdowns in four seasons. If he returns, it would likely be for the veteran minimum.
Meanwhile, special-teams standout Alex Bannister hopes to return.
"The Ravens have expressed interest in bringing Alex back, and Alex would be more than willing to," said Tim McGee, Bannister's agent. "It would have to be a situation that knocked our socks off for him to look in another direction. Alex truly likes playing in Baltimore."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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