The Ravens were cautiously optimistic last night about completing a multi-year contract extension with third-year player Ray Lewis that would make him the highest-paid middle linebacker in the NFL and one of the game's best-paid defensive players.
A source close to Lewis said the deal was worth $26 million for four years, including a signing bonus close to $7 million, for an average annual salary of $6.5 million.
Pittsburgh middle linebacker Levon Kirkland is the highest paid at his postion in terms of average annual salary with a five-year, $25.3 million contract ($5.1 million) he signed April 1, besting the six-year, $27.1 million deal ($4.5 million) signed by San Diego's Junior Seau in September 1997.
The new contract also would put Lewis in a class with linemen Sean Gilbert (seven years, $46.5 million) of Carolina, John Randle (five years, $32.5 million) of Minnesota, Dana Stubblefield (six years, $36 million) of Washington and Warren Sapp of Tampa Bay (six years, $36 million) as one of the NFL's five highest-paid defensive players.
According to a Ravens official, Lewis agents Roosevelt Barnes and Eugene Parker were exchanging faxes and language of contracts, and an agreement could be reached as early as today or take as long as two more days. Neither Barnes nor Parker could be reached to comment yesterday.
"Right now, I'm just chilling," Lewis said before practice yesterday. "But I think it's down to the wire now."
Late last night, Lewis said: "It should probably get done tomorrow [Thursday]."
Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda also said the deal was close to getting done.
"It's a great move to get this done because he is a great young player, the type you build your franchise around," Marchibroda said.
The negotiations hit a snag last week when the Ravens offered Lewis a contract that averaged $6.1 million a year, but Lewis' representatives wanted an $8 million signing bonus, which the Ravens declined to offer.
Barnes and Pat Moriarty, the club's vice president of administration, exchanged proposals in the parking lot at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium after the Ravens' 14-13 loss to the Chargers on Sunday. Lewis did not travel home with the team after the game, staying with Barnes and Parker to study the proposal.
Nearly a month ago, Barnes had proposed a five-year deal worth $40 million that included a $10 million signing bonus. The Ravens were reluctant to talk about the possible agreement yesterday because they were in a similar position with another Barnes/Parker client nearly 18 months ago, then-rookie outside linebacker Peter Boulware.
TC The deal took longer than expected to complete.
"We're talking," said Ravens owner Art Modell. "Other than that, I'm not going to comment. Hopefully, we'll have something to say soon."
Lewis, 6 feet 1 and 240 pounds, has two years left on his original contract that pays him $675,000 this season and $770,500 next. The Ravens eventually could have designated him as their "franchise" player and forced him to stay the length of his contract by paying him the average salary of the top 10 players at his position.
But that may have angered Lewis, who was the second player ever drafted by the Ravens in 1996, the 26th chosen overall. Lewis would be the second Raven to sign during this season, the first being third-year receiver Jermaine Lewis, who got a five-year contract worth $16 million on Oct. 19.
Modell said he did not know if the Ravens would re-sign any more players during the team's six remaining games.
"I don't know, we really haven't addressed that," Modell said. "But we're willing to keep our top players here as long as possible."
Ray Lewis is the team's leading tackler for the third straight season with 79 and is considered one of the club's cornerstones along with Boulware and third-year left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden.
Lewis had 142 tackles in 1996 and led the league with 210 last year, the only player to reach the 200-tackle plateau, which earned him Pro Bowl honors.
A league source, however, said the Ravens are taking a gamble with Lewis because of his reckless playing style that has resulted in shoulder and elbow injuries the past two seasons.
This season, Lewis has missed 2 1/2 games with a dislocated left elbow suffered against Jacksonville in Week 3. During his absence, the Ravens gave up 100-yard rushing games to three running backs.
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Cincinnati Bengals
Site: Cinergy Field, Cincinnati
When: Sunday, 4: 15 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Bengals by 1 1/2
Pub Date: 11/19/98