Owner Steve Bisciotti made one thing clear at the annual State of the Ravens address Wednesday: The face of the Ravens' offense will not change this offseason.
"Ray [Rice] and Joe Flacco will be part of this football team next year, guaranteed," Bisciotti said.
Rice, who led the NFL in yards from scrimmage and scored a franchise-record 15 touchdowns, is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Flacco, the much-maligned quarterback who was likely a dropped pass by Lee Evans away from leading his team to the Super Bowl, is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
Their statuses will linger over what figures to be a busy offseason for the Ravens, who began personnel meetings this week, knowing they have 13 unrestricted free agents and four restricted ones from a team that came within seconds of beating the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game.
Two prominent issues they would like to resolve soon are contract extensions for their franchise quarterback, whom Bisciotti and general manager Ozzie Newsome vehemently defended Wednesday, and their star running back, who will be given the franchise tag and prevented from hitting the free-agent market if a deal cannot be worked out.
The Ravens would prefer to reach an agreement with Rice before the period to apply the franchise tag prospective free agents begins Feb. 20 because it would give the team more flexibility under the salary cap.
"Ray is an unrestricted free agent, and, obviously, the franchise [tag] has to come into play," Bisciotti said. "With Joe, it doesn't. We're just going to sit down and start grinding out the contract terms."
Whether Flacco and Rice have one of their best offensive lineman back is less clear. Ben Grubbs, the Pro Bowl left guard, is an unrestricted free agent, and the team's top decision-makers acknowledged Wednesday that it might be tough to keep Grubbs, especially after signing right guard Marshal Yanda to a five-year, $32 million contract last offseason, and with so many other key performers whose contracts need to be addressed.
"Ben has two major factors that we like: He's a really good player, and he's young," Newsome said. "So as we start to put together the 53-man squad going into 2012, we will factor those things in. But what we also have to factor in what will that keep us from not getting and what would that allow us to have to get rid of in order to keep [him]. And that's the balance that we'll have to deal with going forward. Ben was in the building here just two hours ago, and I had a good talk with him. … He understands [and] his agent understands the business. I think we're in a good spot with Ben."
Asked specifically whether the Ravens could re-sign Grubbs and Rice and also extend Flacco's contract this offseason, Newsome said, "Who would we let go in order to keep those three guys? Because if we decide to let four or five players go, waive them, terminate them, then we could keep those three very easy. But the key is balancing, keeping the good players that we've got and trying to re-sign those guys. It's easy to do if I was to sit here and [say], 'I'm going to cut this guy, cut this guy and cut this guy.' Then I could sign all three of those guys in two days."
Bisciotti interjected that another way to ensure that Flacco, Rice and Grubbs will all return is to "restructure the hell out of contracts … but we'll end up paying for it three years from now. Our window will close and we'll be letting a bunch of guys go like we did in 2001, and we did that to try to repeat and win the Super Bowl."
The salary cap for 2012 hasn't been established yet, but Bisciotti, Newsome, director of player personnel Eric DeCosta and vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty were scheduled to meet Wednesday to talk about where the team stands and potential cap decisions.
Veterans Lee Evans, Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr are three potential salary cap casualties.
"Because of the way we started to do business three or four years ago — when John [Harbaugh] came on board — we do a good job of looking at our cost today and then our cost in the future and we try to balance both of them," Newsome said. "We will be able to put as competitive a football team on the field as we need to be able to compete with Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Cleveland because that's where it starts."
Here are some other topics that were covered Wednesday:
•While much of the contract talk centered on Flacco, Rice and Grubbs, Newsome didn't rule out engaging in extension negotiations with cornerback Lardarius Webb, a restricted free agent this offseason.
"I think it would be best for this organization," Newsome said. "The sooner you strike, the better deal you can get for yourself."
•Newsome said his team's three priorities this offseason are the offensive line, wide receivers and pass rushers. He also acknowledged that regardless of whether free agent Matt Birk retires, the center position will have to be addressed.
"We don't know what Matt Birk is going to do yet," Newsome said. "He was in the building yesterday. Andre [Gurode] is a free agent, but he's acknowledged to me that he enjoyed his one year in Baltimore and would like to continue. I will say this: Before we line up and play in 2012, there will be another center on this football team in some capacity — free agency, draft or whatever."
•Bisciotti said team officials haven't heard for certain that safety Ed Reed will return for his 11th NFL season, but the organization is operating under that assumption.
"Ed doesn't give definitive answers," Bisciotti joked when asked whether he had heard definitively from Reed whether the safety would be back. "No, he hasn't [said]. We didn't get that same proclamation we got from Ray [Lewis]. We're assuming he's going to be back. He's under contract, and I still think he has the desire to play."
Reed is entering the final year of his contract, which prompted a question to Bisciotti about the organization's preparing for life after the safety and Lewis.
"I don't know that you ever look to replace Hall of Famers at their positions," Bisciotti said. "I don't know that that matters. Jimmy Smith is Ed Reed's replacement. In other words, we have great players like [Haloti] Ngata and [Terrell] Suggs that are their replacements. We don't have enough money after paying Ngata and Suggs to go get Hall of Famers at linebacker and safety. They just rotate."
•Bisciotti acknowledged that it is up to the organization to appease fans still disenchanted about the team's decision to move training camp full time out of Westminster's McDaniel College and into the Ravens' facility in Owings Mills. The decision makes training camp inaccessible for most of the thousands of fans who descended on Westminster each year.
The Ravens are working on scheduling some practices outside of Owings Mills that will be open to fans. There will be at least one open practice at M&T Bank Stadium, and the team is also discussing having one in Westminster and another at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
"It's our job to get [fans] comfortable with the things that we do," Bisciotti said. "We've talked about getting out there and making some of the practices at the stadium and in some other places. … It's our job to create that access. … We'll take care of the tykes. We'll figure out a way to get some of them to practices and get the autographs and get that interaction. We'll do a good job with that. It is very, very bittersweet to come to the conclusion that finally it is in our best interest from a football perspective to do that here instead of Westminster."