Six weeks from the start of free agency, there are varying degrees of uncertainty for Ravens players.
All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomas knows there is a chance he might not make it to free agency. Running back Jamal Lewis realizes he might not return. And fullback Ovie Mughelli isn't quite sure what to think.
The Ravens' priority next month is Thomas, who would be one of the top 10 free agents in the NFL if he hits the market March 2. But the Ravens are expected to use the franchise tag on Thomas by the Feb. 22 deadline if the sides are unable to reach a new contract.
When Brian Billick was asked on his weekly WBAL Radio show whether the Ravens would put the franchise tag on Thomas, the coach declined to discuss the team's intentions, only saying that the Ravens typically don't like to use the tag.
"Now is the time to address [a new contract] since the season is over," Thomas said after the Ravens' 15-6 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday. "We'll sit down whenever they're ready and we'll go from there."
Thomas, who turns 30 before next season, finished with a career-high 11 sacks this season and ranked third on the team with 106 tackles.
He would be a lucrative free agent for several teams, especially the San Francisco 49ers, who are coached by former Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. By using the franchise tag on Thomas, the Ravens would retain all the starters on the NFL's top-ranked defense.
The franchise tag allows a team to keep a player from becoming a free agent for that season by paying him the average salary of the top five players at that position in the league. Thomas still could sign a long-term deal with another team, but the Ravens would receive two first-round picks for compensation, making such a scenario unlikely.
The franchise tag for linebackers last season was $7.1 million, which likely won't change drastically this season. That's a feasible number for the Ravens because the salary cap will increase by $7 million this year.
Thomas' agent, Bus Cook, did not return phone calls.
The next issue for the Ravens is Lewis, who will be due a $5 million bonus in March. It's expected that the Ravens will cut the franchise's all-time leading rusher.
As the 2003 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, Lewis rushed for 2,066 yards, the second most in NFL history. Over the next three seasons, he has averaged 1,014 yards rushing and has failed to show breakaway speed.
"I love the Ravens, I've been here from the start, don't know anything else," Lewis said. "It's just a great team. Whether I'm here or not, I think the Ravens will be all right. But I love this team and wouldn't mind being back here."
Mughelli increased his value with a strong finish this season. After not making a catch in the first seven games, he had 21 receptions for 182 yards and two touchdowns in the last nine.
Before that late surge by Mughelli, the Ravens were prepared to upgrade at fullback through free agency or the draft.
"Hopefully, I'll be a part of the team next season because I think we have a great chance to make another run at the Super Bowl," Mughelli said. "There aren't really any hints on what's going to happen, but I would definitely like to be back."
The only certainty is that the Ravens have a better chance at keeping this team together compared to the last time they reached the playoffs.
After the 2003 season, 15 Ravens became free agents. This season, the number could be eight.
"I'm very confident that we'll be able to keep the integrity of this team going forward," Billick said. "We would like to keep this team intact."
Note -- The Ravens have retained five practice squad players for next season: quarterback Drew Olson, tight end Rob Abiamiri, receiver Romby Bryant, linebacker Jimmy Cottrell and offensive tackle Chris Pino. They have allocated Abiamiri and Cottrell to NFL Europe.
FREE TO GO? The Ravens' free-agency situation could involve 11 players:
LB Adalius Thomas
OT Tony Pashos
FB Ovie Mughelli
DE Jarret Johnson
RB Musa Smith
S Gerome Sapp
WR Clarence Moore
PR-KR B.J. Sams
RB Jamal Lewis