Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ravens Free Agent Picture Begins to Take Shape

Of all the “Big Three” linebackers the Ravens have up for free agency this season, the one I most suspected would be allowed to hit the market- Bart Scott- could be resigned in a Baltimore uniform within the next several days, according to agent Harold Lewis. At the beginning of the offseason, I had several key contentions: the Ravens would be willing to pay competitively for Terrell Suggs or spend the franchise tag on him. Secondly, the Ravens would make a strong play for Ray Lewis, and all accounts are saying that management will probably outbid anyone else for the services of the 33-year-old face of the franchise. Finally, I was certain that deep down inside, Bart Scott wanted to be a starter more than he wanted to be in Baltimore- I could easily see him in a Jets uniform at outside linebacker, for instance. Should Scott resign, it would indicate to me that Baltimore is unsure if they will get back Ray Lewis or that Scott is willing to take a discount to stay a Raven. Either way, it would surprise me.

Harold Lewis also represents center Jason Brown, easily the best offensive lineman on the team this season after moving over from guard after the 2007 season. Lewis intimated that EITHER Brown or Scott could resign, but not both- I estimate that Brown is more likely to hit the market. The fact is that offensive and defensive linemen can command a great deal as a free agent, as they are less likely than skill position players or linebackers or defensive backs to have their performance take a significant dropoff from one season (or team) to another. Additionally, the Steve Hutchinson deal in 2006 worth $49 million set the stage for blockbuster contracts for offensive linemen. He will likely be looking for something on the lower end of Jordan Gross’ 6 year deal which paid out $30.5 million over the first three years. He won’t get that, but that will be his starting negotiating point. With the bloated price for linemen, I would not be shocked if Brown decided to resign with the Ravens after free agency begins, but he would be foolish from a financial standpoint not to see what is out there- even in this economy.

However, don’t expect the feel-good story of this season to be back in a Ravens uniform. At the scouting combine late last week, Ozzie Newsome sent a rather clear message that this team could be parting ways with backup-turned-starter Jim Leonhard. Management has told him he would have to compete for a starting job with returning free safety Dawan Landry, and Leonhard obviously would like to be a starter somewhere. Unlike the other Ravens free agents, Leonhard has no tradition of being part of this organization and no inherent loyalty to the coaching staff outside of former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, whom he has described as having taught him more about the game than anyone in his NFL career. Besides, there are significant reasons for the Ravens to avoid resigning Leonhard. From a financial standpoint, Landry is still under his rookie contract and won’t be up for a new one for another few seasons- it wouldn’t make sense to pay what it would take to keep Leonhard with the team. From a football standpoint, this team also has promising young safeties in Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski who could possibly fill the void a la Jarrett Johnson when Adalius Thomas left. Look for Leonhard to bolt for the Jets and serve as a top notch starting safety for another 6 years, while Baltimore takes their chances with another playmaker in Landry.

Finally, Newsome also updated the media on the status of negotiations with the only kicker Baltimore fans have ever known, Matt Stover. He implied that both the Ravens and Stover were looking at other opportunities, but that has not been corroborated by the kicker, who will be conducting his own negotiations with the team. It is clear that the 41-year-old wants to sign a new deal to stay with the team, but has not been contacted by anyone from the front office. I have no problem with the Ravens wanting to move on; Stover has lost his range in recent years and is now questionable with anything beyond 40 yards- Steven Hauschka was brought in for 50+ yard kicks and kickoffs- and Stover only converted 81.4% of his field goal attempts, his worst percentage since 1994. I am sure he can still play, but this might be as good a time as any for the franchise to move on to kicker #2.

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