The Ravens decided not to place the franchise tag on Jamal Lewis yesterday, a move that could signal the departure of the franchise's all-time leading rusher and a new direction for the team's running game.
Lewis will become an unrestricted free agent March 3, joining a loaded running back market that includes Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin James, DeShaun Foster and Ahman Green.
General manager Ozzie Newsome personally called Lewis to say the Ravens still will be "involved" in the negotiating process during free agency, but the former All-Pro thinks otherwise.
"My gut feeling is I won't be back," Lewis told The Sun. "They didn't negotiate with me [throughout the season], so why would they negotiate with me now?"
The biggest factor in the team's decision not to franchise Lewis (which would have required a one-year, $6 million tender) was the other options available to the Ravens during the next few months.
The Ravens likely won't pursue high-profile backs, such as Alexander and James, considering their modest cap room (projected between $7 million and $8 million), and their other holes on the roster (quarterback, defensive line, linebacker and safety).
Their probable course of action is to let Lewis and backup Chester Taylor test the free-agent market and try to re-sign one of them if they don't receive the value they're seeking.
If the Ravens fail to retain Lewis or Taylor, they likely would target the draft. Southern California's LenDale White or Memphis' DeAngelo Williams - who are considered among the top three college running backs - should be available when the Ravens use the 13th overall pick.
As insurance to taking a rookie running back, the Ravens would look to sign a second-tier veteran at a reasonable cost. The team is also confident that former third-round pick Musa Smith is over his injury-riddled past.
The Ravens' only response to not using the franchise tag came in a team-issued statement.
"We will still consider the possibility of talking to Jamal about a long-term contract," Newsome said.
Lewis, 26, is not optimistic because of nonexistent talks during the past year. His agent, Mitch Frankel, sent a proposal to the Ravens at the start of training camp in August and has never received a counteroffer from the team.
The Ravens have not begun negotiations with Taylor either. Lewis said he is "confused" about what direction the Ravens are headed.
"I thought if they weren't talking to me, they would be talking to Chester Taylor, and then I find out that they're not," he said. "Maybe they are rebuilding. Maybe they're trying to bring in young talent. I have a feeling there are going to be a few more players leaving, but who knows what they're trying to accomplish?"
Lewis, selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2000 draft, quickly became one of the league's most feared running backs, using his size to bowl over tacklers and his speed to run away from them.
He carried the Ravens' offense in 2003, when he rushed for 2,066 yards (second most in NFL history) and received the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year award.
Injuries and federal drug charges led to Lewis' production declining the past two years. He managed a career-low 906 yards last season after spending four months in federal prison as part of a plea bargain.
"[Steelers coach] Bill Cowher has always complimented me whenever we played them," Lewis said. "Any team that wants a running back to carry 25 to 30 times a game, I'm here. I'm a horse. They just need to run me."
Lewis denied there is any bitterness with the Ravens - whom he once said promised a long-term deal a year ago - but lamented the lack of a passing game in his time here.
In five seasons with Lewis as the featured back, the Ravens ranked in the top half of the NFL in rushing four times, including three top-10 finishes. The passing game, meanwhile, ranked 22nd or lower all but one season.
"When teams prepared for our offense, everything came after keying off Jamal Lewis," he said. "As long as I was there, that was always going to be the case."
More than any previous year, Lewis caused some friction last season by complaining about a lack of carries and acknowledged there was a lack of communication with coach Brian Billick.
"I don't know what to say about it. I guess the chemistry just didn't mesh," Lewis said. "We really didn't bump heads, but I've always played for coaches who shoot the truth. ... Other coaches handled me as a partner, but here I was splitting time with Chester. The year before they're running me 25 to 30 times a game with a bad ankle and we're trying to get into the playoffs. This year, I'm carrying it only 10 to 15 times on a 6-10 team. It doesn't make a lot of sense, huh?"
If Lewis has played his last game for the Ravens, he said he leaves with special memories.
"We won a world championship in Baltimore, and the fans were always behind me while I was trying to set the record [in 2003]," Lewis said. "It was an exciting time. [But] I don't know if I fit into their offense anymore."
Sun reporter Mike Preston contributed to this article.
Running back options
With the Ravens unlikely to pursue a top-tier free-agent running back -- such as Shaun Alexander or Edgerrin James -- here are the options for them this offseason to fill the void in their running game:
Re-sign their free agent
Height, weight -- 5-11, 245
Age -- 26
Positive -- The Ravens' all-time leading rusher has the size to wear down defenders and the speed to run away from them. He showed in 2003 that he can carry an offense.
Negative -- Injuries and off-the-field problems have caused his production to decline the past two seasons. He is a one-dimensional back, one who can't catch passes or be relied upon as a blocker.
Question -- With all the pounding Lewis has taken, are his best days behind him at age 26?
Height, weight -- 5-11, 213
Age -- 26
Positive -- Slashing-type runner who has great vision and sudden movement. He needs only a crease to create big plays.
Negative -- Has carried the ball 20-plus times in only four career games. He doesn't have the strength or size to run over tacklers.
Question -- Does he have the durability to be a featured back, or is he simply a very good backup?
Add second-tier free agent
Last year's team -- Carolina Panthers
Height, weight -- 6-0, 222
Age -- 26
Positive -- Uses quick feet to hit cutback lanes and make defenders miss at the hole. A capable receiver.
Negative -- Lacks elite breakaway speed that big-play backs need. Has a history of injuries and fumbling.
Question -- Can he overcome injury history and become a dependable starter?
Last year's team -- Green Bay Packers
Height, weight -- 6-0, 218
Age -- 29
Positive -- Possesses solid combination of athletic ability, size and strength. His speed makes him a big-play threat on every carry.
Negative -- Injuries and age make his durability a concern. Fumbling was a major issue in the past.
Question -- How much does a team spend on a possible boom-or-bust back?
Last year's team -- Minnesota Vikings
Height, weight -- 5-9, 209
Age -- 27
Positive -- Exceptional speed allows him to turn the corner on toss plays. Shows good patience and vision to let plays develop.
Negative -- Lacks ideal size, which hurts his running between the tackles. Has never been durable.
Question -- Is a pure speed back a good fit in the Ravens' system?
Draft one at No. 13
College -- Southern California
Height, weight -- 6-2, 235
Age -- 21
Positive -- Powerful north-south runner who has the toughness to run over tacklers.
Negative -- Not a complete back in terms of being a natural receiver or consistent pass blocker.
Question -- Considering his style, could he be the next Jamal Lewis?
College -- Memphis
Height, weight -- 5-10, 217
Age -- 22
Positive -- Plays bigger than his height and runs hard. He became one of four Division I-A running backs to eclipse 6,000 yards in a career, joining Tony Dorsett, Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne.
Negative -- Durability is an issue after a broken leg in 2004, torn knee ligament in 2003 and a sprained knee in 2002.
Question -- Who does Memphis actually play?
Lower-tier free-agent alternatives