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Which way for Lewis?

The Ravens will find out today what is rhetoric and what is reality in regard to Ray Lewis.

The longtime face of the franchise was allowed to begin speaking to other teams at midnight last night, becoming the highest-profile free agent in the team's 13-year history.

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Does Dallas owner Jerry Jones truly covet Lewis' leadership for a dysfunctional Cowboys team? How interested is Rex Ryan in making Lewis his defensive centerpiece in his first season as New York Jets head coach? Could the Denver Broncos and Mike Nolan sneak into the picture?

Or will Lewis find out his best option is to remain with the Ravens?

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While the Ravens have continued to express interest in Lewis, the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year has talked about playing for the Cowboys and the Jets.

According to Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware, Lewis said it's his "dream" to play for the Cowboys.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome acknowledged that he has heard all of Lewis' banter but said it won't affect the talks between the two sides. It is believed the Ravens have offered Lewis a three-year deal that averages $8 million a season.

"As long as we continue to be involved in negotiations, that's all I can control," Newsome said.

This could be a busy start to free agency for the Ravens. Besides Lewis, the Ravens have two other players (linebacker Bart Scott and center Jason Brown) among the top 10 free agents available.

But most of the attention has centered on Lewis, a free agent for the first time in his 13-year career.

While making his 10th Pro Bowl, Lewis proved he could continue to play at a high level. Still, it will be interesting to see whether teams are willing to offer a big contract to a linebacker who turns 34 by the start of the regular season.

Here are some possible destinations for Lewis:

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Cowboys

On paper, this seems to be a good fit. The Cowboys need a leader to rein in some personalities, and they need another big-name star to fill the seats of their new stadium.

But unless Jones is playing some games, it doesn't seem Dallas will show much interest.

"It would surprise me to see a big splash" in free agency, Jones told reporters at last weekend's NFL combine.

Jets

The Jets are unloading players at a brisk rate, opening up millions in salary-cap room. It seems logical Ryan would want to reunite with Lewis, who was the cog in Ryan's creative defenses.

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Ryan said he thinks the Jets' defense could be as good as the Ravens' by next year.

"If we bring in the kind of people we're talking about, we only need to add one or two guys," Ryan said at the NFL combine. "The foundation is already there."

One reason Lewis might not end up in New York is the Jets' recent history. They were burned last season with an aging star in quarterback Brett Favre. The Jets could be wary of going down that path again.

Broncos

This is the team that has stayed under the radar with Lewis. But there are strong signs Denver could make a run at him.

New Broncos defensive coordinator Nolan had a great relationship with Lewis when he was the Ravens' defensive coordinator. They would meet every week to discuss game-planning.

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Besides, Denver is not expected to re-sign middle linebacker Nate Webster. It has been estimated the Broncos have more than $30 million in salary-cap room.

This could be a more viable destination than the Cowboys or the Jets.

Ravens

Even though Lewis has never said publicly he wants to return to the Ravens, the team has never wavered in its pursuit of him.

At the Pro Bowl, coach John Harbaugh said the team is "going to pay a lot of money" to keep Lewis. At the NFL combine, Newsome spoke glowingly about Lewis' role as a mentor.

But the strongest statement to the Ravens' commitment to Lewis came nearly a year ago at the NFL owners' meetings.

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"If he becomes a free agent, I think the Ravens would probably outbid other teams," owner Steve Bisciotti said in March 2008. "We know Ray's value more than the other teams. We know the leadership he brings to the team. We know the commitment and the effort he gives to winning."

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Jason Brown expects to leave, could sign today PG 6


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