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Ravens expected to exercise patience when free agency opens Tuesday

With about $10 million of cap space, team will likely try to retain Grubbs, others before trying to make a splash

By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

11:10 PM EDT, March 12, 2012

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The Ravens' goal was to re-sign Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs before he officially hits the open market with hundreds of other NFL free agents Tuesday at 4 p.m. Now almost out of time and with seemingly no indication that Grubbs is willing to eschew free agency, they say their focus hasn't changed.

"Our approach is the same as it always is," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We're trying to get our guys re-signed first. Then we'll know where we stand and we'll go from there."

The Ravens are assuming a familiar pose as other teams, armed with sufficient salary cap space and extensive wish lists, jostle for position to woo the top free agents with aggressive recruiting pitches backed by huge contract offers.

They'll be one of the teams patiently sitting back, focused on re-signing a couple of their own unrestricted free agents and waiting for the market to calm down before they enter the bidding. When they do, they'll be looking to fill a couple of specific needs and add to the core of a perennial playoff team.

It is a philosophy that has worked well for the Ravens in the past, and their success, coupled by the team's salary-cap situation — better than in past offseasons but still not overly flexible — leaves little room for it to change.

The Ravens were about $16 million under the set $120.6 million cap after gaining an additional $1.6 million of relief Monday when the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys were reportedly docked significant salary cap space for front-loading contracts during the uncapped 2010 season.

However, tendering contracts Monday to three of their unrestricted free agents — cornerback Lardarius Webb got a first-round tender while cornerback Cary Williams and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe got second-round tenders — subtracted nearly $6.6 million, leaving the Ravens with less than $10 million of cap space.

The Ravens, who didn't extend a contract offer to running back Matt Lawrence, would like to sign Webb and Williams to long-term deals, but at least now they are protected in the event either is signed to an offer sheet. The Ravens have the ability to match any contract offered to either player, and if they choose not to, they will be awarded a draft choice to match the tender that they put on the specific player.

"I'm very blessed to get a first-round tender!" Webb said on his Twitter page. "I guess everything is up in the air now!"

Most pundits believe the Ravens would match any offer for Webb, who has emerged as a shutdown corner, but they obviously hope it doesn't reach that point with so many other demands on their cap space.

With the remaining $10 million, they will also have to pay their draft picks, which won't be too pricey considering they pick so late (29th) in the first round and don't have a fourth-round pick after the Lee Evans trade. Then, there is the matter of playing the free-agent market, both signing their own along with filling a couple of other needs with outside free agents, like they did last offseason when they acquired fullback Vonta Leach and safety Bernard Pollard, then added running back Ricky Williams and left tackle Bryant McKinnie later in the offseason.

All four were key contributors as the Ravens finished the regular season 12-4 and were a few plays away from representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.

"We already have a strategy in place that will allow us to have the ability to sign players that we want to sign," Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said late last month from the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. "We have a plan in place."

Newsome and other Ravens officials have made it clear that bolstering the offensive line, receiving and linebacking corps and adding a pass rusher are the team's biggest needs.

Along with signing quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice, who has been given the franchise tag, retaining Grubbs has been established as an essential part of the Ravens' offseason plan. They made the guard a significant contract offer last month, hoping to keep him from hitting the open market, where numerous offensive-line needy teams await. However, that presently appears unlikely and the team may now need to get in a bidding war to retain his services. That could be tough considering their cap space.

Grubbs agent, Pat Dye, didn't respond to a request for comment Monday, but he said two weeks ago that "anything that the Ravens present [to Grubbs], we would have to evaluate it in the context of what the market might bear to him."

The Ravens also have interest in re-signing linebackers Jarret Johnson, Jameel McClain and defensive end Cory Redding, their three other defensive starters who will hit the open market Tuesday. They have had some dialogue with their respective agents and made their interest known, but it appears that they are willing to let all three players test the market to see what's out there.

It's expected that all three will attract some interest, and the New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts, coached by former Ravens defensive coordinators Rex Ryan and Chuck Pagano, will reportedly be among the suitors.

The Ravens' other unrestricted free agents include tight end Kris Wilson, centers Matt Birk and Andre Gurode, linebackers Brendon Ayanbadejo and Edgar Jones, defensive tackle Brandon McKinney and safeties Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski. Birk's agent, Joe Linta, is expected to be in Baltimore later this week to discuss a contract for the center and an extension for Flacco. Ayanbadejo has also expressed a strong desire to return.

However, the Ravens are bracing for the reality that their roster will again experience heavy turnover. That's become a fact of life in the NFL, and the Ravens have proven to be an organization able to withstand it. Last offseason, they lost eight key contributors either via release or free agency — running back Willis McGahee, fullback Le'Ron McClain, wide receiver Derrick Mason, tight end Todd Heap, guard Chris Chester, nose tackle Kelly Gregg cornerback Josh Wilson and safety Dawan Landry — and were able to replace them by relying largely on their young players.

They know that they'll likely have to do the same thing next season, and they'll start finding out just how much they have to replace when free agency begins in earnest Tuesday afternoon.

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporter Matt Vensel contributed to this story

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