Ravens aim to keep 'D' intact

The Baltimore Sun

INDIANAPOLIS -Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said yesterday that he is optimistic he could keep star linebacker Ray Lewis in Baltimore and the heart of the team's dominating defense in place for the 2009 season.

In a brisk, 15-minute news conference with national media at the NFL scouting combine at Lucas Oil Stadium, Newsome said he is negotiating new contracts for Lewis, linebackers Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs, and center Jason Brown.

All but Suggs, who received the team's franchise tag for the second straight year, will become unrestricted free agents Friday.

The free-agent news was not as positive on safety Jim Leonhard or kicker Matt Stover, however. Newsome seemed resigned to letting Leonhard slip away in free agency and acknowledged that he was looking for a kicker to replace Stover.

Leonhard signed a one-year deal with the Ravens last spring after three seasons with the Buffalo Bills, then played a key role in the secondary and returning punts when Dawan Landry suffered a season-ending neck injury in the Ravens' second game.

The difficulty for Newsome is that he cannot guarantee Leonhard a starting job at strong safety but another team could.

"I know Jimmy will probably be attractive to other teams," Newsome said. "The things that Jimmy has to deal with is that Dawan Landry is coming back, and we've got [Haruki] Nakamura and [Tom] Zbikowski [at safety].

"If he's coming back, he's competing for a starting job. If he goes to one of these 31 other teams, he has the chance to be a starter, and everybody wants to play. ... I understand Jimmy wanting to go somewhere else."

Newsome was not as expansive about Stover's status. "He's probably looking, and we're looking, too," Newsome said as he was hustled away from the media center to watch offensive linemen go through combine drills. "I think that's probably the best way of saying it."

Stover, 41, has been the Ravens' kicker for each of their 13 seasons in Baltimore, the only remaining player from the team that moved from Cleveland in 1996.

Leonhard did not return calls yesterday. Stover, meanwhile, reiterated his desire to remain with the team. He said he intended to handle his own negotiations with the team but that he hadn't been contacted by anyone about his contract.

"I still want to play for the Ravens," he said. "I feel we can work something out. ... If they don't want to sign me, I can't change their mind. I'm just looking forward to the opportunity" to talk.

It is believed Newsome met with Lewis' representatives Wednesday in Indianapolis. Lewis can negotiate with other teams next week for the first time in 13 seasons with the Ravens.

With Lewis being 33, this would appear to be the final contract of his illustrious career. Newsome said money would play a major role in the decision, but he also hopes the team's rejuvenation last season under first-year head coach John Harbaugh would serve as incentive to return.

"Economics are always a part of it," Newsome said. "I don't know what the other part of it would be. He has a very good relationship with Coach Harbaugh. You know of his relationship with [owner] Steve [Bisciotti], and he and I have a very good relationship.

"And I think he realizes where our football team is at right now, in that we have Joe [Flacco], and that we can contend in our division and in our conference to try to get him to another Super Bowl. So those things are in place. But economics always play a big part of it."

But the Ravens would lose more than a Pro Bowl linebacker if Lewis were to leave. They would lose the face of their franchise, the inspirational leader of the defense and a player who even helped mentor two rookies on offense, Flacco and running back Ray Rice.

Asked whether Lewis had more value in Baltimore than anywhere else, Newsome said, "We like to think that."

"What you all do not get the opportunity to see like I do on a daily basis is how he interacts with the young players. He's a great mentor not only to the other young linebackers, but some of the young offensive players. ... So he has value that goes beyond his production on the football field."

Newsome said he is optimistic "at this point" about resolving the contract issues with the three linebackers and Brown. But he allowed that it doesn't always happen that way.

"We always feel like we're willing to pay more for our players than other people will, but over the past few years, we have lost players because they've had the opportunity to help their families by making a lot of money" elsewhere, Newsome said.

The New York Jets, with former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan as their head coach, would be an attractive option for Lewis, Scott or Leonhard.

Is Newsome concerned Ryan will poach some of his players?

"I'm just as concerned [with] George taking them," he said of former Ravens pro personnel director George Kokinis, now the general manager in Cleveland. "That tree is all over now."

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