The Ravens aren't planning to use the franchise tag on Ray Lewis to keep the 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker off the free-agent market, owner Steve Bisciotti said yesterday.
Bisciotti said he wants to sign Lewis to a new contract, but brought up a scenario in which Lewis might take a lesser contract from the Ravens in order to finish his career here.
"Are we going to get a hometown discount? I hope so. I really do," Bisciotti said of the 13-year veteran who has played his entire career with the Ravens. "That means we can find one more Jimmy Leonhard on the free-agent market with the money we save."
Lewis was not available for comment yesterday. He also was not made available to reporters after the Ravens' AFC championship game loss in Pittsburgh or the day after when players cleaned out their lockers.
Now, the Ravens have 36 days to sign Lewis before he becomes an unrestricted free agent on Feb. 27.
There have been a few notable instances where star players have taken less to help the team, and Bisciotti pointed specifically at New England quarterback Tom Brady.
In May 2005, Brady signed a six-year, $60 million extension that paid him less guaranteed money and a lower total value than contracts signed at the time by Peyton Manning (seven years, $98 million) and Michael Vick (10 years, $130 million).
But the Ravens can't bank on Lewis to make the same sacrifice. Unlike Brady, Lewis, 33, is likely looking at his last contract.
"Ray is not going to settle for something that he thinks is way below" his market value, Bisciotti said. "If he wants to go out there and maximize his money and somebody is desperate for that kind of leadership, then there may be a big gap. And I'm not going to say to Oz [general manager Ozzie Newsome]: Go do it under any circumstances."
Lewis had one of his better seasons in recent years, finishing with 117 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, three interceptions and two forced fumbles.
The Ravens had talked in the offseason about limiting his snaps in passing situations to save the wear and tear on his body. But Lewis remained an every-down linebacker and played a full 16 games for the first time since 2003 (when he won his second NFL Defensive Player of the Year award).
Ravens officials have said Lewis' value to the Ravens goes beyond tackles and sacks.
"There are very few people that I know in sports that transcends their statistics, and we had the luxury of watching Cal Ripken simultaneously do the same thing to the Orioles," Bisciotti said. "I think they bring a sense of continuity and leadership that we're all looking for. I think Ray has given Baltimore that. I certainly don't want to see him in another uniform."
Bisciotti said he has spoken with Lewis about the contract situation but only in general terms. The owner said his friendship with Lewis wouldn't influence negotiations, which he will leave to Newsome.
"I hope I am just having a dinner with Ray to celebrate a new contract," Bisciotti said. "There's a lot of guys out there on this team that I admire, and Ray is really at the top of that list. Nobody loves and respects Ray more than Ozzie. As we say, 'In Ozzie we trust.' "
There had been speculation that the Ravens would sign another Pro Bowl linebacker (Terrell Suggs) to a long-term deal because he is younger and use the tag on Lewis. Players designated with the franchise tag are forced to accept a one-year contract at a salary based on the average of the NFL's five-highest paid players at that position.
Lewis, though, probably would have been angered by the tag because he would perceive it as a lack of loyalty.
But now with Bisciotti declaring that he won't use the franchise tag on Lewis, the Ravens would have the option of placing that designation on Suggs for a second straight year.
In the meantime, Bisciotti said the Ravens are setting their sights on Lewis.
"I've been hopeful forever that we're going to work a deal," Bisciotti said. "Last year, I said I don't think that other people are going to value Ray Lewis higher than we do. He's showing at 33 that he's capable of playing like a 28-year-old. I've got my wife on budget already to try to save some money so we can sign him."
SAVE THE DATES
Key offseason dates:
Feb. 18-24: NFL scouting combine, Indianapolis.
Feb. 19: Deadline to designate franchise and transition players.
Feb. 27: Free agency and trading period begin.
Late March-April: NFL announces 2009 schedule.
April 25-26: NFL draft, New York.
July 19-26: Training camps open.
Aug. 13-17: First weekend of preseason games.
Sept. 10: NFL season opener.