R. Lewis mystery about to be solved

OWINGS MILLS -- The mystery surrounding Baltimore Ravens star middle linebacker Ray Lewis is about to be unveiled. As the clock ticks down to the start of free agency early Friday morning, Lewis' agent and the Ravens are engaged in high-stakes negotiations regarding the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year that may or may not result in him ending his career in Baltimore.

At this juncture, no deal is believed to be imminent and it's highly possible that no deal may be struck. It's not over yet, though.

Until Lewis makes his decision, the city of Baltimore will remain in suspense while the Ravens contemplate whether they should just move on from a future Hall of Fame selection or wait it out.

The Ravens have remained intent on trying to re-sign Lewis even while he continues to make noise about wanting to explore his options with other NFL teams, including the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets. Lewis has never become an unrestricted free agent in his 13-year career and he's believed to be extremely curious about looking around the league while he seeks a top-dollar contract.

"Obviously, I know Ray Lewis is a higher priority than Jason Brown," said center Jason Brown, an unrestricted free agent. "That's just common sense. Ray is just that franchise type of player.

"We've got to direct all our attention to this man before we can go down our list of priorities. I would love to see Ray start and finish his career as a Raven, but he's earned the right to do what he wants."

For the Ravens, this situation sets up a couple of scenarios.

Either they'll manage to hammer out a new deal with Lewis, who turns 34 in May, that would allow him to retire in Baltimore, or they will eventually have to move on if other teams are willing to pay him more and they're unwilling to match.

There's also the strong possibility that Lewis could test free agency and discover that the big money he's looking for might not be there for him because of his age. In that case, Lewis could potentially go back to the Ravens, perhaps for less money than what he was originally offered.

Or the Ravens could move on from Lewis with a younger replacement by re-signing free agent inside linebacker Bart Scott.

The Ravens would like to re-sign the defense's second-leading tackler behind Lewis from last season, but may have to act within the next few days. Scott is expected to be in heavy demand when free agency begins Friday at 12:01 a.m.

Among the teams believed to be interested in Scott: the New York Jets, the Cincinnati Bengals, the St. Louis Rams, the Kansas City Chiefs, the New York Giants and the Arizona Cardinals.

If it comes down to an either-or proposition, it might be in the Ravens' best interest to go younger with Scott, 28, and plug him into Lewis' middle linebacker spot and play either Tavares Gooden or Brendon Ayanbadejo in Scott's old position.

"To me, it's not even a question," former NFL general manager Charley Casserly said during an NFL Network television appearance. "Bart Scott, he's younger. He's certainly a terrific football player. He will get some activity in free agency. The Ravens want him back.

"I think Ray's smartest move is to go back to the Ravens. They will pay him more money than anybody else because of his leadership ability and what he's done for the franchise."

Could the curtain be about to fall on Lewis' stellar stint in Baltimore that has included a Super Bowl ring and 10 Pro Bowl selections?

It's not inconceivable.

"I can't stand the thought of Ray Lewis not being on the Baltimore Ravens," former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden said following Casserly's comments. "He's the heart and soul of the Baltimore Ravens and one of the best players in football. I can't stand the thought of him not going back to Baltimore."

Added former NFL offensive lineman Jamie Dukes: "If I had the choice between Bart Scott and Ray Lewis, I'm taking Ray Lewis all day because I need somebody who has the intellect to run the entire defense and that's what Ray gives you."

During an interview with the NFL Network while at the Pro Bowl, Lewis said that he's not interested in granting the "hometown discount" that owner Steve Bisciotti had envisioned to keep him in Baltimore.

"I don't play less," Lewis said. "If you don't play less, you don't take less. That's just life."

Lewis' seven-year, $50 million contract has expired, so the question will come down to how much money he's looking for. Lewis made $6.5 million in annual base salaries each of the past two years, so he'll probably be looking for at least similar and probably greater money and he'll want a lot of it upfront in a signing bonus.

Will Lewis stay in Baltimore or will he wind up in some other NFL city?

"I can't imagine him going anywhere else but Baltimore," former NFL coach Steve Mariucci said. "I know money talks and I know Bart Scott is a younger player, but I can't see Ray going anywhere but Baltimore."

Of course, the Ravens could always decide that it's time to close the Lewis chapter and retool the NFL's second-ranked defense with younger personnel.

In a recent radio interview, Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who was retained with a $10.2 million franchise tag last week, seemed resigned to the possibility that Lewis won't return since he's apparently not interested in walking away from potentially more money elsewhere.

"That's him," Suggs said of Lewis. "I was willing to do it in order to keep all of us here, but I guess not. I hope to have him as a teammate.

"He's a wonderful teammate, a great mentor, a great brother. But your big brother can't always fight your fights for you. Sometimes, you have to step out of big brother's shadow and fight for yourself."


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