Ravens keep blocking tandem together

OWINGS MILLS - It's no secret where the football is usually headed. Stage left. If it's a running play, then the Baltimore Ravens' comfort zone means pounding tailback Jamal Lewis behind the blocks of All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden and bulky offensive guard Edwin Mulitalo. Keeping that massive tandem together was accomplished Tuesday afternoon when Mulitalo, 28, signed a seven-year contract reportedly worth $15.5 million that includes a $4 million signing bonus.

The deal prevents Mulitalo from entering unrestricted free agency on Friday, a scenario that was never the 6-foot-3, 340-pounder's intention.

"The funny thing is we're two different guys, but our demeanors are kind of the same and we play well together," Mulitalo said. "Obviously, he'll be in there with the greats in the Hall of Fame one day and I'll be right next to him.

"Maybe you'll be able to see my jersey number. That's going to be my proof."

A year ago, the Ravens were relatively powerless to stop defections from their roster because the salary-cap bill was due. Shannon Sharpe, Jamie Sharper, Rod Woodson, Jermaine Lewis, Duane Starks, Lional Dalton and Rob Burnett all departed the Ravens' fold last season.

Now, it's a much different story.

The Ravens have the salary-cap space to allot to their own free agents like Mulitalo and assign the franchise tag to cornerback Chris McAlister with enough left over to mull over possible upgrades at wide receiver, quarterback and offensive tackle.

By retaining Mulitalo, a fifth-year professional who was drafted in the fourth round of the 1999 NFL Draft out of the University of Arizona, the Ravens were able to keep a popular lineman who has started 53 games and has a 33-20 record with him in the lineup.

"We consider Edwin to be one of those key elements in growing forward," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It's the kickoff to a very exciting off-season."

Mulitalo said he has never seriously entertained the thought of playing anywhere else other than his hometown San Francisco 49ers. Re-signing Mulitalo allows the Ravens to return with a relatively intact line of at least four starters.

The possibility exists that the club will invest their first or second-round draft pick on a right tackle, or they will investigate a thin free-agent market. Mulitalo has contributed to both of Lewis' 1,000-yard seasons, and made a smooth adjustment back to guard last season after an aborted experiment at right tackle.

"If I'm going to run the ball, I'm going to run it over his side," offensive line coach Jim Colletto said. "I'm just glad he's here. Jamal Lewis is sleeping well tonight, I'm sure."

Mulitalo signed his contract after going over some final details with Ravens director of football administration Pat Moriarty. Afterward, Mulitalo didn't sound like a man inclined toward lavish spending or celebratory plans. He said he was in the mood to prepare a home-cooked meal for his family.

"It's a nice deal," Mulitalo said. "It's something I've been dreaming about and working for all of my 300-pound life. I didn't want to go out in the free agent market. "I didn't want to leave the offensive line that I had played with. This is where I felt at home."

At the close of the press conference, Colletto turned toward Mulitalo, whose family was in attendance, and quipped: "I need a loan."

NOTE: Billick reiterated that the Ravens want to re-sign incumbent starter Jeff Blake, an unrestricted free agent, to a new contract. However, the coach acknowledged that the club will obviously cover itself with contingency plans for free agent quarterbacks in case Blake and his agent, Ralph Cindrich, balk at the Ravens' offer.

"We would like very much for Jeff Blake to be here," Billick said. "I think that's going to happen, but we have to cover ourselves if that doesn't happen."

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