Although Ravens officials declined to publicly announce their intentions yesterday, they have insinuated for the past month that they would keep the Pro Bowl cornerback off the free-agent market by using the franchise tag on him for the second straight year.
According to a source, the Ravens plan to make that official today, meaning they would be required to give McAlister a one-year deal worth $7.1 million (a 20 percent raise from last year's contract) if the sides are unable to agree on a long-term contract before the season.
McAlister, 26, would become the seventh player - and third cornerback - designated as his team's franchise player this offseason. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who is returning from the NFL combine in Indianapolis, said the team would wait to address the matter today.
The franchise tag virtually locks McAlister into returning to the Ravens for the 2004 season along with extending the window for negotiating a long-term deal. If the Ravens didn't name him their franchise player, McAlister would become an unrestricted free agent on March 3 and be able to field offers from other teams.
By using the tag, the Ravens can continue talks for a multi-year agreement until March 17. Under league rules, the Ravens would lose the right to use a franchise tag over the length of McAlister's new contract if they strike a deal between March 17 and July 14.
The Ravens, who are a league-best $23 million under the $80.5 million salary cap, have the room to absorb McAlister's $7.1 million cap hit but have repeatedly said they would prefer to sign him to a long-term contract.
Team officials met with McAlister's agent, Mitch Frankel, at the NFL combine on Sunday, although Frankel said there was no progress made on a new deal.
When Frankel asked Newsome whether the team planned to use the franchise tag, he said he was told no decision had been made.
"They haven't given me an indication whether they will or will not," Frankel said. "They have not made up their minds. I was a little bit surprised that they historically have always taken that position."
Asked about the possibility of a multi-year agreement being reached before today's 4 p.m. deadline and avoiding the franchise tag, Frankel said, "I think there is a very small chance of that happening. So, I guess we just wait and see if they decide to franchise Chris and take it from there."
It is unclear whether McAlister would fall into the category of an exclusive or non-exclusive franchise player.
An exclusive franchise player, who receives the average of the five highest salary cap figures for his position in 2004, is blocked from negotiating with other teams. A non-exclusive franchise player, who receives a one-year tender based on the five highest cap figures from 2003, could be signed by another team willing to give up two first-round draft picks if the Ravens choose not to match the suitor's tender offer.
Since McAlister is receiving a 20 percent raise from last year's franchise contract, it is unknown whether he would be classified as an exclusive or non-exclusive franchise player.
A Ravens first-round pick in 1999, McAlister earned his first Pro Bowl invitation with a breakthrough season last year.
Bouncing back from early season troubles (which included getting benched in Week 3 after missing curfew), he shut down such elite receivers as Denver's Rod Smith, Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith, St. Louis' Torry Holt, Miami's Chris Chambers and San Francisco's Terrell Owens.
McAlister has insisted that he plans to remain with the Ravens. "I'm going to retire a Raven," McAlister said a day after the Ravens' playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans.
NOTE: Linebacker Ray Lewis will have his right shoulder re-examined within the next 10 days. The Ravens want to look at the shoulder to make sure no medical treatment is required. The NFL's Defensive Player of the Year wore a harness on the shoulder for the final month of the season. It is not the same shoulder that Lewis had surgically repaired in 2002.
Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister would become the seventh player designated as his team's franchise player this offseason. A look at the others:
Player., Pos. ........................ Team
Champ Bailey, CB ............... Redskins
Darren Howard, DE ............ Saints
Orlando Pace, OT ................. Rams
Julian Peterson, LB ............. 49ers
Charles Woodson, CB ........... Raiders