In a move that had become little more than a formality, the Ravens announced today that they will use the franchise tag on Ray Rice, a decision that both sides hope will be the precursor to a long-term extension for the Pro Bowl running back.
But the team also announced that it had cut veterans Chris Carr and Lee Evans. It placed running back Ricky Williams on the reserve/retired list, meaning the Ravens will retain his rights if he decides not come out of retirement.
Carr, a reserve at cornerback who was hampered by injuries all season, was schedule to make $2.5 million ($3.45 million against the cap.)
Evans, the veteran wide receiver who will be remembered in Baltimore for having a touchdown pass knocked from his hands on the final drive of the AFC championship game, was scheduled to count for $5.5 million against the cap (including a $1 million roster bonus had he been on the team on March 18).
"As we have in the past, placing the franchise designation on a player allows us to keep negotiating on a long-term contract. Our goal is to keep Ray Rice a Raven. We've done this with other outstanding players through our history, including Haloti Ngata a year ago," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement issued by the team.
"Each year, we have to make tough, difficult decisions to manage our roster. Chris Carr and Lee Evans were valuable Ravens, and both helped us get to the AFC Championship game and the brink of the Super Bowl last season with the way they played and the maturity they added to the locker room. Chris was instrumental in helping us earn the playoffs the last three seasons.
"As we talked about when we informed Chris and Lee of these moves, this does not close the door on them coming back to the Ravens."
In the short term, the franchise tag guarantees that Rice, who was an unrestricted free agent, will not be able to hit the open market on March 13, and it now puts him in line to make $7.7 million, the projected franchise salary numbers for running backs, during the 2012 season.
But more than anything, the tag buys the Ravens and Rice's agent, Todd France, more time to negotiate a long-term deal, which the team has called one of its top offseason priorities. The Ravens now have until July 16 to work out a deal or the 25-year-old will play the season under the franchise tag.
"We obviously were well aware the tag was coming today," France said. "We are going to continue to have open dialogue and an amicable negotiation process with the Ravens in an effort to lock Ray up to a long-term contract that compensates him relative to his highly successful achievements on the field as well as all of his intangibles that don't show up on the stat sheet."
France and Ravens' officials met last week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis to begin discussions about the deal. Ideally, the Ravens wanted to get a deal done before March 13, giving them more salary cap flexibility to sign players and retain some of their own free agents.
However, there is plenty of ground to cover in the negotiations and both sides recognized that the franchise tag was essentially inevitable.
"We have used the franchise tag only so we can get a long-term deal," Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said last week at the combine. "We would like Ray Rice to have a long career in Baltimore. If we have to franchise him, that would be the reason why."
Rice, who led the NFL with 2,068 yards from scrimmage in 2011, acknowledged late in the season that he knew the franchise tag was a possibility. However, he hoped to work out an extension to remain in Baltimore - "I love it here," he said – and get some long-term career security.
It's unclear where the Ravens and Rice stand in their contract talks. Per team policy, the Ravens do not discuss details of contract negotiations, and France, hasn't responded to several requests for comment.
But this announcement comes as no surprise. At the team's season-ending news conference on Feb. 1, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti guaranteed that Rice would be with the Ravens in 2012 and conceded that the franchise tag might have to come into play to ensure it.
This is the seventh time the Ravens have used the franchise tag since arriving in Baltimore in 1996. They most recently employed the strategy on defensive tackle Haloti Ngata last February and eventually signed him to a five-year, $61 million extension two weeks into the 2011 season.
The Ravens had also used the tag to buy themselves more time while negotiating lucrative extensions for Terrell Suggs in 2008 and 2009 and cornerback Chris McAlister in 2003 and 2004.
Those two cases suggest that if contract talks with Rice reach a stalemate, the Ravens might be willing to let the running back play out 2012 without a new deal in place and possibly reopen negotiations after the season. It's unclear if Rice would consider a holdout to gain leverage.
Rice would have been one of the NFL's most sought-after free agents had the Ravens not tagged him, though he might not be the only running back to receive the franchise tag. The Chicago Bears' Matt Forte and the Houston Texans' Arian Foster are also prime candidates to be tagged.
Two of Rice's peers were given big contracts in 2011. Adrian Peterson inked a seven-year, $100 million extension with $36 million in guaranteed money with the Minnesota Vikings. The Tennessee Titans gave Chris Johnson $53 million over four years with $30 million guaranteed. Sports Illustrated recently wrote that Rice is seeking a new contract in the neighborhood of what the Vikings are giving Peterson, but neither side have confirmed that is the running back's asking price.
Rice rushed for a career-high 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2011 and was selected to his second Pro Bowl in his four NFL seasons. He ranked second in the NFL in rushing behind Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Rice's 3,923 rushing yards the past three seasons rank third behind Johnson and Jones-Drew.
Rice is second in Ravens history in rushing yards with 4,377 - Jamal Lewis is the all-time leader with 7,801 yards from 2000 to 2006 - and Rice's 250 receptions rank third in franchise history.
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