McAlister would become a free agent if the Ravens fail to tag him before Friday or sign him to a contract by Feb. 28. By designating McAlister as a franchise player, the Ravens will tender him a one-year contract worth the average of the top five players at his position, or $5.9 million.
Although another team could still attempt to sign McAlister, the Ravens have the right to match the deal. If the Ravens choose not to, they would be awarded two first-round picks if McAlister left.
"I don't know if we are certain to do it," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "But it looks like that's the way it's headed."
Usually, applying the franchise tag disappoints the team and player. But neither side seems too concerned, partly because of a new rule that essentially makes this move a three-week extension.
Previously, if a team signed its franchise player to a multi-year contract before the middle of July, that team would lose its right to use the franchise tag again for the length of the player's deal. But now McAlister and the Ravens can continue to negotiate, and if the sides reach a long-term deal by March 15, the Ravens will be able to use the franchise tag again next season.
If the sides do not reach a deal by March 15, the Ravens will likely wait until after July 15 to sign McAlister to a multi-year contract.
"That's why the rule changed last year, to give teams more of a chance to get a deal done," Newsome said.
The Ravens and McAlister are likely looking at a five-year deal with a $7 million to $9 million signing bonus. The benefit to signing McAlister now instead of waiting until July would be additional salary cap room for the Ravens.
All of McAlister's $5.9 million salary would count against this year's cap - in which the Ravens are about $17 million under - if McAlister remains franchised. If the Ravens signed McAlister to a five-year contract, that number would likely be cut in half because of a lower base salary and the prorated portion of his signing bonus. The Ravens would then have more money to sign potential free agents starting Feb. 28.
The benefit for McAlister would be the up-front signing bonus, the only part of a player's contract that is guaranteed.
McAlister's agent, Mitch Frankel, did not return phone calls yesterday.
Guard Wally Williams was the last player the Ravens used the franchise tag on, in 1998. Williams and the Ravens never agreed on a new deal, and he left after that season. The Ravens briefly placed the transitional tag on former center Steve Everitt in 1997 before withdrawing it, which allowed Everitt to sign as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles. Transitional players are paid the average of the top 10 players at their position.
The Ravens may bring back Williams, who played for the New Orleans Saints last year but may be released in a salary cap move, or former tackle Orlando Brown, who reportedly reached a settlement in his lawsuit against the league, to add depth to the offensive line.
Brown played with the Ravens from 1996 to 1998 before signing with the Cleveland Browns. He has not played since December 1999, when he was struck in the eye by a weighted penalty flag.
As for McAlister, the Ravens have a history of not giving into players just for the sake of creating cap room. Last year, the Ravens wanted to restructure the contracts of linebackers Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware and quarterback Elvis Grbac before the free-agency period but failed on all three players.
Grbac was subsequently released and spent last year out of football, and Lewis and Boulware received lucrative contract extensions in training camp.