Running back Jamal Lewis signed with the Cleveland Browns last night, which likely means the Ravens will look to trade for the Buffalo Bills' Willis McGahee by today.
In an unusual turn of events, Lewis, the Ravens' all-time leading rusher, will join a Cleveland team that he traditionally had his best games against. It was the first free-agent visit for Lewis, who scheduled the trip after talks with the Ravens reached a stalemate.According to ESPN, Lewis signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal that could reach $5 million with incentives. The Ravens had offered him $2 million on a one-year contract.
Lewis likely signed with the Browns because he didn't know if he still had a job with the Ravens.
"Jamal wanted to stay in Baltimore," said Mitch Frankel, Lewis' agent. "Unfortunately, Baltimore didn't give him an option. Their contract offer made him go elsewhere."
Before Lewis left for the Browns, it was believed that the Ravens had switched their focus to acquiring McGahee. The Ravens probably need to trade a first-day draft pick for McGahee, who has out-rushed Lewis (3,365 yards to 3,044) and scored more touchdowns than he has (24 to 19) over the past three seasons.
It's expected that the Ravens will put all their efforts into reaching a contract extension with McGahee today, which is considered the biggest hurdle to completing the trade.
Lewis' signing, however, hurts the Ravens because they have lost leverage in trade talks with the Bills. Now, without Lewis as an alternative for the Ravens, the Bills could press the team for a second-round pick instead of a third.
Before the Lewis development, Buffalo seemed eager to unload McGahee. The Bills are scheduled to meet today with Corey Dillon, the third free-agent running back to visit Buffalo this week.
Losing Lewis comes as a surprise because it seemed certain a week ago that he would return to the Ravens.
The Ravens cut Lewis on Feb. 28 to avoid paying him a $5 million roster bonus, and both sides seemed agreeable to reaching a new deal. But the Ravens never changed their one-year offer to Lewis, prompting the team and Lewis to start looking elsewhere at the beginning of the week.
"He wishes he could stay in Baltimore, but he is going to a place where he is wanted and where he is going to get lot of carries," Frankel said.
Picked fifth overall in the 2000 NFL draft, Lewis rushed for 7,801 yards for the Ravens and scored 45 touchdowns.
His best season was 2003, when he gained 2,066 yards - the second-highest season total in NFL history. He was named the league's Offensive Player of the Year and was selected to his only Pro Bowl.
During the 2000 Super Bowl season, Lewis carried the Ravens' offense down the stretch. In the final two months of the season, he averaged 119 yards rushing and accounted for nearly half the team's offensive production.
Lewis endured tough times with the Ravens, too.
In the 2001 training camp, he suffered a season-ending knee injury, which severely hurt the Ravens' chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions.
Then, in October 2004, Lewis pleaded guilty to using a cell phone to try to set up a cocaine deal four years earlier. He served a four-month term in federal prison and spent two months in a halfway house.
Over the past two seasons, Lewis has not been the same running back, averaging less than 4 yards a carry. He has been criticized for hesitating when reaching the line of scrimmage and lacking breakaway speed.
Lewis will be reunited in Cleveland with general manager Phil Savage, the former Ravens director of college scouting who was instrumental in drafting Lewis.
Meanwhile, the Ravens abruptly released affable left guard Edwin Mulitalo yesterday, a move that brought sadness to the organization and spurred speculation that the team was poised to make a run at McGahee.
By cutting Mulitalo, the Ravens saved $2 million in cap room by using a new part of the collective bargaining agreement, which could be helpful in extending McGahee's contract once the trade is completed.
To acquire McGahee, the Ravens likely would need to trade at least a third-round pick. Because he is in the final year of his contract, the Ravens probably would be willing to sign him to a deal similar to the one recently given by the New York Jets to Thomas Jones (four years, $20 million including $12 million in guaranteed money).
According to Mulitalo, the Ravens told him they wanted to go with younger offensive linemen. With Mulitalo gone, Jason Brown will take over at left guard after starting 12 games last season.
"I was a little surprised," Mulitalo said. "It's a little tough at first. Every player is thinking about this in the back of their minds. At first, it's humbling. But I totally understand the business."
Mulitalo, 32, started eight years for the Ravens next to perennial Pro Bowl tackle Jonathan Ogden, forming one of the most powerful left sides in the league for years.
But there had been speculation since the season ended that Mulitalo would be cut because the Ravens were impressed with his replacement (Brown) and also needed the salary-cap room.
By using the new part of the CBA, the Ravens spread Mulitalo's cap hit over two seasons, meaning they will save $2 million after June 1 but Mulitalo will still count $1.7 million (the remainder of his prorated bonus) against the 2008 cap.
"When you release a player like Edwin, it gives you pause," coach Brian Billick said. "This is the cold side of the business."
Last season was a tough one for Mulitalo. He rededicated himself by trimming 15 pounds, only to suffer a season-ending arm injury in the fourth game.
Mulitalo said he is not contemplating retirement and left open the possibility of returning to the Ravens later this year.
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