The city of Baltimore received a sobering reminder about the business side of professional football Monday when veterans Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, Willis McGahee and Kelly Gregg were informed by the Ravens that the team has decided to release them from their contracts.
The official announcement that NFL owners and the NFL players association had come to an agreement to end the lockout had barely sunk in when Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome issued a statement that outlined the team's plans to move quickly to create room to maneuver financially.
"We will be making a number of roster moves in the next 48 hours that will free up salary cap space," Newsome said. "This will give us the ability to make offers to our players we want to re-sign, plus put us in a position to sign free agents from other teams."
The team said prior to the lockout that re-signing offensive lineman Marshal Yanda would be the top priority going into 2011, and without making several roster cuts, the Ravens would have very little chance of offering him what he's likely to command on the open market as an unrestricted free agent. By cutting the four veterans, the Ravens appear to have freed up around $18.6 million of cap room.
Shortly after Newsome released his statement, word trickled out that McGahee and Gregg were among the first cap casualties. Neither roster move was particularly surprising, considering their contracts — signed years ago — are no longer in line with their production. McGahee has been with the Ravens since 2007, and was slated to make $6 million this year, far too much money to pay for a running back who lost his starting job to Ray Rice. Gregg, who was slated to make $3.5 million in 2011, has been a starter at nose tackle since 2002, but he's been slowed by injuries and age in recent years.
The Ravens, however, were just getting started. Newsome also told Heap and Mason — two popular veterans who have been the most productive players at their positions in franchise history — that the team was releasing them as well. Mason, 37, ranks first in Ravens' history in catches (471) and receiving yards (5,777). Heap, 31, is the Ravens' all-time leader in receiving touchdowns (41) and is second in receptions (467) and receiving yards (5,492).
The decision to cut both Mason and Heap came as a bit of a surprise, but it can perhaps be read as an indication of just how serious the Ravens are about keeping Yanda, and how much money they need to free up just to re-sign a group of restricted free agents that includes safeties Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura and linebacker Jameel McClain.
"Oh my God, I'm shocked," said Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson. "Kelly and Heap are some of my best friends on the team. Derrick and Willis have been such big contributors. No one is immune to it. That's all I can say."
Rumors swirled throughout the day that center Matt Birk, cornerback Domonique Foxworth and linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo might also be on the chopping block, but all three players were contacted Monday by The Baltimore Sun and the team had not informed them of any such plans.
"It's part of the business," Birk said. "You're surprised, but you're not. It happens every year to guys. It's part of our game that is unfortunate for a lot of reasons. But the salary cap is a big reason why our game is so competitive and popular. Hopefully, the Ravens can find a way to re-sign them, but all of those guys will land on their feet somewhere."
Although a league source said the Ravens may try to re-sign Mason and Heap for less money this year, Mason sounded almost wistful Monday night when asked about his release on WBAL radio, a station where he has hosted a talk show for the past three years.
"It's a little bittersweet," Mason said. "I understand the business of football, and I understand what has to be done in the business of football. It was good while I was there. I can't hang my head down. I think I did everything above and beyond what they asked me to do when I came in there six years ago. And I think everybody in that building can attest to that. If last year truly was my last year in a Ravens uniform, then I've enjoyed every bit of it. ... I appreciate every moment, and every cheer. Every autograph that I gave, I gave because I wanted to give it. I love that city. I love the people inside of it. I don't think there is a better city that you can play for than Baltimore. They embraced me through the ups and the downs, and I truly, from the bottom of my heart will always be appreciative and love those fans in Baltimore."
Mason did leave the door open for a potential return, but the Ravens could also make a play for one of the wide receivers on the market this year.
That would mean signing a free agent from a class that includes Santonio Holmes and Sydney Rice, or making a trade for a player like Steve Smith, who is currently under contract with the Carolina Panthers but has privately been pushing for a trade to several teams, including the Ravens.
"In this profession, you have to be prepared to go at any time," Ayanbadejo said. "Just because they didn't cut you now doesn't mean they won't do it later. Eventually, it happens to 100 percent of us. That's the nature of the beast."
Sun reporter Jamison Hensley contributed to this story.