Coach joins Lewis saga

The Baltimore Sun

Seventeen days before free agency formally arrives, the negotiating table between Ray Lewis and the Ravens is littered with propositions, mixed signals and perhaps even some wishful thinking.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh is the latest to enter the dialogue. While in Honolulu for the Pro Bowl last week, Harbaugh sounded cautiously optimistic that the team will keep its All-Pro middle linebacker.

"Ray Lewis is going to be a guy we're going to pay a lot of money to in order to keep," Harbaugh told USA Today. "Steve [Bisciotti, team owner] said he thinks we'll be willing to pay more than anybody else.

"I know Ray has to take a look around. But I'm definitely convinced that Ray wants to finish his career a Baltimore Raven. And there's no question the Baltimore Ravens definitely want Ray."

Harbaugh was unavailable to clarify his comments yesterday because it is believed he was traveling back from Hawaii, where the Ravens staff coached the AFC team in Sunday's Pro Bowl.

But he seemed to intimate the Ravens will not use the franchise tag on Lewis, as Bisciotti said at a news conference Jan. 21.

Unless the Ravens use their franchise tag on Lewis, he will become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his 13-year NFL career Feb. 27. If he plays under the tag, Lewis would receive a one-year contract at a salary based on the average of the NFL's five highest-paid linebackers.

According to a National Football Post article and Scout.com, which first published the franchise numbers, that contract would call for Lewis to receive $8.3 million in 2009.

Lewis, who participated in his 10th Pro Bowl on Sunday, completed a seven-year, $50 million contract he signed before the 2002 season. He received a then-NFL record signing bonus of $19 million in that deal.

It is not known whether negotiations between the Ravens and Lewis have begun. General manager Ozzie Newsome will be in draft meetings all week and was unavailable to comment. Joby Branion, who is listed as Lewis' agent with the NFL Players Association, did not return a phone call to his office yesterday.

But a lot of rhetoric has already been passed around.

Bisciotti opened the discussion in March when he suggested the Ravens "would probably outbid other teams" if Lewis became a free agent. In January, at his season-ending news conference, the owner said he was hoping for a "hometown discount."

While in Tampa, Fla., for the Super Bowl, Lewis told Ravens media that his contract was "nobody else's business" and said, "What I'm thinking, nobody needs to know."

Six days later, though, from Honolulu, Lewis, 33, shared those thoughts with the NFL Network. He said there would be no hometown discount. He also talked up the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets as attractive options in free agency, even though he's not allowed to speak with any other team until Feb. 27.

The Cowboys, he said, could use his leadership, which is true. But whether they can handle his salary is another issue.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has told Dallas media he will not be a major player in free agency this season. He is more likely to turn over a franchise-record contract to linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who led the NFL with 20 sacks this season and has one year left on his rookie contract.

Are the Cowboys likely to pay Lewis more than the Ravens? Probably not.

The Dallas Morning News has reported that before the Cowboys tender offers to their restricted free agents, they will have about $10 million to spend against the $123 million cap. They can create more by cutting players or restructuring contracts.

But a big deal for Lewis would eat up a lot of cap space.

The Jets, meanwhile, would seem to have genuine interest in Lewis because their new coach, Rex Ryan, was Lewis' old boss in Baltimore the past 10 years. But they have even bigger cap issues.

According to Newsday, the Jets are over the salary cap now and said that if quarterback Brett Favre retires, it would take about $13 million off the cap.

Would one player - albeit it a great player like Lewis - make the difference for the Jets? That's the question Ryan must address if he enters the Lewis sweepstakes.

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