The Ravens likely parted ways with the most versatile player in team history yesterday when they decided not to use the franchise tag on Adalius Thomas.
The All-Pro outside linebacker is expected to be one of the most sought after players in the NFL when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next Friday.
It will be difficult for the Ravens to re-sign Thomas because four potential suitors - the San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers - all have more than $24 million in salary cap room.
The Ravens are much more limited, with about $3 million in cap space.
Asked about Thomas' chances of returning to the Ravens, his agent, Bus Cook, said, "I wouldn't think they're very good."
Thomas' likely replacement is Jarret Johnson, the Ravens' underrated backup who is scheduled to become a free agent, too. The Ravens have had preliminary discussions with Johnson, and talks could heat up in the next week.
But the Ravens haven't given up hope of retaining Thomas, the only starter from last season's top-ranked defense to become a free agent and one of the most popular players among their fan base.
"We will continue to have negotiations with Adalius," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said from the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. "I don't know what the market will bear out for him."
Thomas, 29, has become a unique NFL talent, playing every position on defense the past two seasons, from defensive line to safety.
The Ravens are banking that Thomas' unusual abilities can only be effective in a specialized system so he might prove more valuable to them than to other teams.
But the 49ers, Patriots, Browns and Packers are expected to be among the teams to pursue Thomas, who is projected to be a top 10 free agent.
The front-runner could be the 49ers because of a Ravens connection. San Francisco coach Mike Nolan, who nicknamed Thomas "The Defensive Slash," was one of the player's biggest fans when he was the Ravens' defensive coordinator from 2002 to 2004.
In what should be his last big contract, Thomas could receive a signing bonus from $12 million to $18 million.
"We respect their decision not to [use the franchise tag] and in fact, we're glad they didn't do it," Cook said. "I think they have opened the door for Adalius to go get paid the contract that he's entitled to and should get paid based upon his performance on the field."
The Ravens could have secured Thomas for one more season, but at a steep cost.
If the Ravens had designated Thomas their franchise player by yesterday's deadline, they would have kept him from being an unrestricted free agent with a one-year, $7.2 million contract (which is the average of the five highest-paid linebackers in the league).
But the Ravens have rarely used the tag to keep players from free agency - they've done so only three times in 11 seasons - because it creates animosity between the player and the team.
The tag also would have severely restricted what the Ravens could have done in free agency because of their already limited cap space.
Thomas did not return phone messages from The Sun yesterday.
Last week, Thomas said he would be open to returning to the Ravens if he became a free agent.
"The market sets itself every year. Hopefully, Baltimore will step up and get the deal done so I can retire a Baltimore Raven," Thomas told ESPN. "But it's still a business. They're going to do what's best for them, and I've got to do what is best for me."
The Ravens drafted Thomas in the sixth round in 2000, but he didn't make his mark until three years later.
He was named to his first Pro Bowl as a special teams player in 2003, becoming one of the biggest gunners in NFL history. At 6 feet 2, 270 pounds, he showed uncanny speed in running down the field and covering punts.
Over the past two seasons, Thomas elevated his game on defense, reaching the Pro Bowl as a starter last season.
The seven-year veteran ranked third on the Ravens last season with 106 tackles and finished second with a career-best 11 sacks.
Thomas leads all NFL linebackers in sacks (28) since 2004, including 16 in his past 21 games. Proving to be a valuable playmaker, he has scored four touchdowns the past two seasons.
Now, the Ravens have to consider how they'll replace Thomas if they don't re-sign him, whether it's Johnson or a free agent such as the Indianapolis Colts' Cato June.
Said Cook: "I think they lost a terrific football player and a finer person."
Sun reporter Mike Preston contributed to this article.