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Ravens make surprising cuts after lockout ends

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The celebration of the NFL's 4-month lockout ending turned into disbelief when the Ravens cut four players, including their top two receivers of all time.

According to league sources, the Ravens informed tight end Todd Heap, wide receiver Derrick Mason, nose tackle Kelly Gregg and running back Willis McGahee that they will be released only a few hours after the NFL and its players agreed on a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement Monday, turning this city's football world upside down.

Yes, football is back. But some of the most beloved Ravens might not be.

While some Ravens fans wonder whether Monday represents an end of an era, there is a possibility that the Ravens will try to re-sign Heap, Mason and Gregg to less expensive contracts as the team seeks to make the playoffs for a fourth straight season.

The Ravens' Super Bowl aspirations will take a hit if they are unable to re-sign Mason and Heap, who have caught the most passes in team history. Mason called the news "bittersweet."

"This is just another chip on my shoulder," Mason told WBAL radio. "This is something else that fuels me and makes me try to be as productive on the field as I can, whether that be in Baltimore — and I hope it is — or somewhere else. [My return] is solely up to them."

The Ravens created $18.6 million in much-needed salary-cap room by releasing the four veteran players.

The Ravens were the league's biggest headliners after the NFL ended its lockout following 133 days of frustration and confusion for owners, players and football fans.

The players' leadership group unanimously recommended approving a deal with the owners, which means both sides have agreed on a CBA that provides a new split of the $9.3 billion generated in annual revenues and shapes the league for the next decade.

The owners and the players struck an agreement in principle on the new CBA at 3 a.m. Monday, but the players' 13-member executive committee — which includes Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth — still had to review and vote on the deal. The sides signed the deal in Washington at 2:15 p.m. Monday.

Resolving the league's first work stoppage in 24 years allows the first full week of preseason to be played on time. Ravens training camp will open Wednesday and free agency will start Friday, continuing one of the most frenetic periods in NFL history.

"This is a good day for the NFL, all of its members and fans of our league," Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said. "We're excited to have the players coming back to our facility in Owings Mills, and we know the coaches are chomping at the bit to get the team ready for the season. We'll be ready for training camp and the season. It's time for football."

The league's old labor deal expired in March, and the owners have locked out the players ever since. The past four months have been a trying one for the league, from a handful of court cases to exhaustive negotiating sessions to head-scratching twists.

On Thursday, the owners overwhelmingly voted 31-0 to approve a collective bargaining agreement and announced a tentative schedule to end the lockout. But the players said they never received the final documents on the owner-approved CBA and couldn't vote until they could review it.

The sides worked through the weekend and wrapped up talks Monday morning, a source told the Associated Press.

"I let out a deep breath when I heard the news," said fullback Le'Ron McClain, who is one of the Ravens' 18 free agents.

Fans were equally relieved.

"I thought we would miss half of the season this year," said Tom Huber, 28, from York County, Pa. "I think fans are going to be a little disgruntled about it, but football is football, it's going to go on and fans are still going to be there."

Teams are expected to begin signing draft picks and undrafted rookie free agents on Tuesday. Talks with veteran free agents can start today, but signings likely won't become official until Friday. The Ravens' priority in free agency is offensive lineman Marshal Yanda.

The Ravens are scheduled to begin their preseason at Philadelphia in three weeks and open the regular season against rival Pittsburgh at M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 11.

"It's about time," said Vince Salvarola, 38, of Baltimore. "I'm ready to get some football going because the Orioles are doing so bad."

The biggest fallout for the Ravens has been the relocation of training camp from McDaniel College. With the uncertainty surrounding the lockout, the team will hold closed practices at its Owings Mills headquarters, which wasn't built to accommodate thousands of fans.

Ravens officials have talked about a public workout at M&T Bank Stadium, but they haven't announced a date.

There are more sweeping changes with the league itself. The new CBA gives players a little less than half of the sport's revenue (about 46.5 percent to 48 percent) and restores the salary-cap system. The NFL will require teams to spend over 90 percent of the annual salary cap and implement a rookie wage scale to reduce the amount of guaranteed money in first-year players' contracts.

The agreement keeps the regular season at 16 games and reduces the number of offseason workouts as well as the amount of hitting in those practices. It also reverts back to the previous free-agency system, where players become unrestricted free agents with four seasons of NFL experience.

"I think fans understand it's a business," said Jarret Johnson, who is entering his ninth NFL season. "If they had a bad opinion of us to begin with, this lockout is not going to change anything. I think being that we got it solved before training camp and the fact that fans are going to wake up and turn on the TV and watch football, I'm sure a majority of them aren't going to care."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jamisonhensley

Sun staff writers Kevin Van Valkenburg, Robbie Levin and Christopher Branch contributed to this article

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