Ravens concerned with own guys at start of free agency

OWINGS MILLS - Through a few clicks of their fax machine at a combined cost of $4.66 million, the Baltimore Ravens secured both of their starting cornerbacks heading into today's launch of free agency.

The Ravens held onto both Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams by assigning them first-round and second-round restricted tenders, respectively. They also assigned a second-round tender to backup linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. Running back Matt Lawrence wasn't given a tender, making him an unrestricted free agent.

If another team signed Webb, Williams or Ellerbe to an offer sheet, the Ravens have the right to match and seven days to decide whether to do so. If they opted not to match in either case, they would receive a first-round draft pick for Webb and a second-round draft pick for Williams or Ellerbe as compensation.

Webb was given the highest possible tender of $2.742 million following a breakthrough campaign where he intercepted five passes during the regular season and three more during the playoffs to tie a franchise postseason record. He also recorded 68 tackles, a forced fumble, a sack and 20 deflected passes.

The Ravens have expressed interest in signing Webb to a long-term deal before he becomes an unrestricted free agent next year.

Williams emerged as a reliable starter for the first time last season, starting every game and registering 77 tackles, 18 pass deflections and two forced fumbles.

By retaining Webb and Williams, the Ravens are $11.33 million under the NFL salary-cap limit of $120.6 million.

The Ravens are saving money for a long-term contract extension for quarterback Joe Flacco. They've also already committed $7.74 million to franchise player and Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice and will also have to use the salary-cap space to sign their rookie draft class, exclusive-rights free agents and anything else that comes up.

There should be enough money for a few signings, but the Ravens aren't expected to make a big splash in free agency.

The Ravens are also interested in retaining inside linebacker Jameel McClain, and the feeling is mutual.

And Joe Linta, the agent for center Matt Birk, said Monday that he expects to learn as soon as today if a deal can be worked out for the six-time Pro Bowl center with Baltimore or if he's going to another team.

However, the Ravens are expected to lose some key players via free agency due to the higher offers they will draw from other NFL teams.

That includes Pro Bowl offensive guard Ben Grubbs.

The Ravens have made what coach John Harbaugh termed a "substantial offer," to Grubbs. Grubbs' agent, Pat Dye, met with the Ravens at the NFL scouting combine and has continued to hold dialogue with team officials.

"Ben is a player that we'd love to have back in Baltimore," general manager Ozzie Newsome said at the combine. "We've had some conversations with Pat Dye already. We will see how things work out between now and the beginning of free agency on March 13."

Grubbs, though, is expected to leave via free agency for bigger money elsewhere. The Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Cleveland Browns are among the teams expected to show interest in the former first-round pick.

The Ravens already made a major investment at guard last August when they signed Pro Bowl blocker Marshal Yanda to a five-year, $32 million contract that included a $10 million signing bonus.

Grubbs' five-year, $9.175 million rookie deal has expired, and he's now expected to command an even more lucrative contract than Yanda.

Most NFL teams don't traditionally pay both of their offensive guards at high market-value levels, or have two elite offensive guards.

"It gets a little complicated," said Grubbs, who was paid $2.995 million last season after triggering an escalator clause in his contract. "I don't want to say too much or too little. I was drafted by the Ravens. I've established a great foundation there, and I've got my boys there. Everything is good there.

"I have a lot of faith and trust that something good will happen no matter what, but I know it's a business. People can be here one day and then gone tomorrow. Will a new chapter open up for me? I don't know, but I have faith that everything will be all right."

Meanwhile, gritty veteran outside linebacker Jarret Johnson is a popular fan favorite who would prefer to remain with the Ravens.

The Ravens have remained in touch with Johnson and have told him that they would like him back.

Still, his options with other teams are expected to be enticing.

Among the teams where Johnson has connections and already been linked to: a New York Jets squad coached by former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and the Indianapolis Colts run by new coach Chuck Pagano, who coached the Baltimore defense last season.

"I would like to retire as a Raven," Johnson said. "Hopefully, something can be worked out. At the same time, I know it's a business. We'll see what happens."

Johnson is one of the best run-stuffing linebackers in the NFL, but his production dipped a bit last season as he fell to 56 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks after 77 tackles and two forced fumbles the previous year, and career-high totals of six sacks and two interceptions three years ago.

"I had a conversation with Jarret at the end of the season and I told him I would maintain communication with him throughout the process," Newsome said. "Jarret is a Raven. He plays like a Raven. We'd love to have him back if things can work itself out."

Backup safeties Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski are not expected to return as they seek increased playing time elsewhere.

Nakamura is a possible addition for the Tennessee Titans or the Indianapolis Colts. Zbikowski could draw interest from his hometown Chicago Bears.

"I would love to be back with the Ravens, but I also want the opportunity to compete for more playing time," Nakamura said. "It's all about opportunity. It's not necessarily all about money."

NOTES: The Ravens' other unrestricted free agents include linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, center Andre Gurode, linebacker Edgar Jones, defensive end Cory Redding, defensive tackle Brandon McKinney and tight end Kris Wilson.