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Assessing the Derrick Mason Dilemma

In football, the cat-and-mouse game that free agents play with general managers every year is actually a lot like buying and selling real estate. The market is constantly in flux, and who has the upper hand depends how many suitors are out there and how desperate the buyer is to make a deal.

A week ago, Derrick Mason's value was probably at its peak. He knew the Ravens wanted him back, and he knew he was more valuable to them than he was to any other franchise, because he knows the offense and is comfortable with Joe Flacco. The team looked desperate, he sensed it, and he wanted to be paid accordingly.

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You don't usually see 36-year-old wide receivers with pedestrian speed getting two-year contracts, but that was what Mason wanted and what he seems to have assumed he'd eventually get. It was a little odd to see Mason declaring he needed a two-year deal or he was going to shop his services around, especially after all the angst about whether or not he would retire -- both prior to the 2009 season and after it was over -- but ultimately understandable. That's the NFL. For all his retirement histrionics, it's always been about business for Mason. You get the impression he's never really wanted to retire as much as he's wanted to get paid, and has been using retirement (at least in part) as a bargaining chip. (The same is probably true of Brett Favre, who only came back for the Love of the Game!, as long as you don't count the $14 million he asked for, and got, in salary.) To pretend otherwise is to be naive. Mason wants the security of a multi-year deal, especially if he gets injured as older players sometimes do. And who can really blame him?

But the market changed when Baltimore traded for Anquan Boldin and signed him to a $28 million extension. It's feels now like Mason overplayed his hand a bit. It looks like some of the money he could have gotten for himself went, instead, to Boldin. And just like that, the power shifted. Mason went from an absolute need to maybe only fitting into Newsome's mantra of "right player, right price."

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So where do both sides go from here?

It's obvious Mason can still help this team. And he might even be more effective in a different role, with teams having to primarily focus on Boldin. But he's probably also going to have to swallow a bit his ego and concede that he isn't going to be paid for past production. Maybe he'll scoff at the Ravens, convince himself that he can catch on in a place like New England and chase a Super Bowl ring there, but that's a team that needs to get younger fast, not mess around with adding 36-year-old wide receivers. That window may have closed.

Mason is still a great route runner, and he's tough as hell. The fact that he played with essentially one arm in 2008 at the end of the year should never be forgotten. But mentally, it's clear that his focus isn't as sharp as it once was. Jack Nicklaus used to say that, as he got older, he still felt like he could hit the ball the way he wanted, he just couldn't hold his concentration for four hours. Those four foot putts killed him. I see some of that in Mason, to be honest. Dropping that wide open touchdown against the Steelers is a perfect example. A 32-year-old Mason makes that catch every single time. A 36-year-old Mason does not.

Is Mason more valuable than, say, Torry Holt, who is looking to sign with a contender after getting cut by the Jaguars? Probably. But it's an interesting question. Mason had a better year last year (Holt didn't score a single touchdown) but Holt was still recovering from a knee surgery and also catching passes from David Gerrard, not Joe Flacco.

The Ravens have never, at least as far as we know, expressed any interest in Holt. But if Mason insists on overvaluing his abilities, Holt is someone they should consider. He's arguably just as cerebral as Mason, would be a good mentor for whatever receiver the Ravens draft, and at age 33, he's three years younger. His average yards per catch (14.2) was actually a tick higher than Mason's (14.1), and he'd certainly be a better No. 2 wide receiver than Mark Clayton.

Ideally Mason drops his price a bit, comes back to the Ravens, cuts out some of the drama and sharpens his focus for a Super Bowl run. But the team can also move forward without him and it won't be a disaster.

That wasn't the case last week, but it is now.

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