As the Ravens await word on whether free agent left guard Evan Mathis will accept their multi-year offer, they addressed one spot on their offensive line Friday, agreeing in principle to a three-year deal with veteran center Matt Birk that is pending a physical.
The re-signing of Birk, who has played the last three seasons with the Ravens, capped a busy day for the Ravens, who couldn't finalize a deal with Mathis before he returned home to Arizona to mull his options, and then watched two more of their free agents (reserve safeties Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski) potentially leave for other teams.
But the Ravens felt good about securing Birk's return. The 35-year-old had been considering retirement before he told Ravens officials late last month that he wanted to return for a 15th NFL season and possibly more. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed.
"One of the things we said earlier this offseason is that we were going to focus attention on the offensive line and getting Matt Birk back is key for us," Ravens general managerOzzie Newsome said. "He is a top player, his intelligence is obvious, and he is a leader on and off the field."
Birk's agent, Joe Linta, who met with team officials on Thursday, said that he fielded calls from several teams about the center but returning to the Ravens was always the Harvard graduate's preference. In doing so, Birk became the first free agent of note to sign with the Ravens since the market opened Tuesday afternoon. They have lost five of their own free agents during that span.
"The three years that he came [to Baltimore], he came from another town and he didn't know what to expect but he's really enjoyed it, as has his family," said Linta, who didn't rule out Birk playing for several more seasons. "I think his plan is to go year-by-year but he really felt great at the end of the season and knows he has more gas in the tank. When he made the decision to come back it was with the idea that 'I'm starting, I'm playing at a high level.' He knows that they're right there for the Super Bowl. All these factors come into it but he'd really like to stay there."
Birk, who was named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year during Super Bowl weekend for his tireless work in the community, has started every game at center for the Ravens over the past three seasons and has started 97 consecutive games overall.
He had a solid 2011-12 season and was instrumental in running back Ray Rice leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage before he struggled in the Ravens' two playoff games against the Houston Texans and New England Patriots.
With Birk and fellow center Andre Gurode both being unrestricted free agents, the Ravens didn't have an experienced center on their roster before Friday , fueling speculation that they would use their first pick in April's draft to select Wisconsin center Peter Konz.
They still could do that and Newsome said at the State of the Ravens Address last month that whether Birk returns or not, the team would like to add another center to their roster. But at least with Birk in the fold, Newsome and the Ravens' front office can turn their attention to other things, or perhaps more specifically, the other spots on the offensive line.
Replacing left guard Ben Grubbs, who signed with the New Orleans Saints on Thursday, remains a priority and the Ravens hoped that they would accomplish that Friday in day two of their visit with Mathis, who blocked for the Philadelphia Eagles last season and is considered the best guard remaining on the free agent market.
The Ravens made Mathis a contract offer, as reportedly have the Eagles, but he opted to leave Baltimore and return home to Arizona to mull over the decision.
While there remains some uncertainty at the left guard spot, the Ravens showed their faith in left tackle Bryant McKinnie by agreeing to pay his $500,000 roster bonus. A decision on the bonus had to be made by 4 p.m. Friday.
McKinnie, who visited the Ravens' facility in Owings Mills on Thursday, started all 18 games for the Ravens during the 2011 season. However, the Ravens' interest in right tackle Eric Winston, a surprise release by the Houston Texans earlier in the week, led to some questions on whether the Ravens planned to let McKinnie go and not pay his bonus.
Winston, meanwhile, spent another day in Kansas City where the Chiefs are trying to get him signed.
In other Ravens' free agent news, Nakamura, a reserve safety and special teams standout for the team over the past four seasons, agreed to a three-year deal with the Panthers.
Nakamura, 25, finished the season with three tackles and two pass defenses to go along with nine special teams tackles, the second most on the team. The Ravens had some interest in bringing Nakamura back, but he was looking for an opportunity to play more which he didn't think he'd get in Baltimore with Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard entrenched as the starting safeties.
Zbikowski, another reserve safety and special teams performer, also reportedly agreed to a three-year deal to reunite with his former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, now the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. However, Zbikowski's agent, Ralph Cindrich, disputed that an agreement had been reached on his Twitter feed later in the day.
Either way, Zbikowski, the team's former third-round pick out of Notre Dame, isn't expected back with the Ravens. After starting the first four games this past season, Zbikowski sustained a concussion and then never regained his starting job back from Pollard.
NOTE: Linta, who also represents Joe Flacco, met with Ravens vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty for several hours Thursday at an undisclosed location to continue negotiations about a contract extension for the quarterback.
It was the second meeting between the two sides, with the first one coming late last month at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.
"It was a good meeting. Pat Moriarty is a pro, and we're going to plow through the process and hopefully come to a good conclusion," Linta said. "Things are "moving in the right direction. It's very clear that they want him there for a long time and he wants him to be there for a long time. There's just a lot of stuff to consider as you move forward."
Flacco, 27, has one year remaining on his rookie contract. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and other team officials have said on several occasions that signing him to an extension and making sure he enters the 2012 season with a long-term commitment from the organization is one of their priorities this offseason.
Linta said he and Moriarty "plan to continue to do this until we can figure something out. We're going to keep meeting and talking until something happens one way or the other."