With free agency set to begin on March 13, there have been a lot of questions about where the Ravens sit with the salary cap. That cap hasn't been officially set, though it's expected to be similar to last year's number. Either way, all indications are that the Ravens are in decent shape with the cap, certainly in better position than they have been the past couple of offseasons. That doesn't mean that the Ravens have the room to go on a free-agent shopping spree, because that won't happen. That doesn't fit with their organizational philosophy anyway. But it does mean that they should be able to keep a couple of their higher-priority free agents (Ben Grubbs will probably price out of their range) while also filling one or two needs with outside free agents. And they should get a little more flexibility by either releasing or restructuring the contracts of cornerbacks Chris Carr and Domonique Foxworth, and wide receiver Lee Evans.
Another way to create a little more cap flexibility heading into free agency would be agree to an extension with Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice. That, however, doesn't appear to be on the verge of happening. The Ravens can officially place the franchise tag on Rice starting today, though they may wait until closer to March 5, the final day the tag can be applied. When the Ravens put the franchise tag on Rice -- and it certainly appears to be a formality -- it shouldn't be taken as a negative. In fact, the tag has been a precursor to the Ravens agreeing to long-term deals with Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Chris McAlister. I expect the same to happen to Rice. He wants to be here and the Ravens want him here. They'll figure it out. In the mean time, the franchise tag will buy both sides some time for the significant negotiations. Once he is franchised, the Ravens will have until July 16 to work out a deal with Rice or he'll likely play the season under the franchise tag, which carries a salary of approximately $7.7 million.
Veteran center Matt Birk said last week that he was still mulling a decision on whether to retire or return for another season. Birk has also said since the season ended that if he returns, it will be with the Ravens. I'm sure Birk is weighing numerous factors, but this week could add some clarity to his decision. Birk's agent is Joe Linta, who will meet with team officials at the combine to begin discussions about a contract extension for another one of his clients, quarterback Joe Flacco. I'm going to assume that Birk comes up at some point in the conversation. Birk had a tough go of it in the two playoff games, but otherwise he had another solid season. However, I don't believe it is a foregone conclusion that the Ravens bring him back even if Birk decides that he'd prefer to push back retirement another year. General Manager Ozzie Newsome's comment at the State of the Ravens address that the team will add another center to the roster for next season only reinforces the idea that team officials would like to get a little younger and more physical on the offensive line.
One thing that has surprised me slightly is that finding another veteran running back to replace the retired Ricky Williams doesn't appear to be very high on the Ravens' offseason to-do list. Perhaps, team officials are being coy. Or perhaps, they feel like Williams, who didn't completely close the door on a return, will ultimately reconsider and be back. Or perhaps, they saw enough in practice from rookies Anthony Allen and Damien Berry to believe that they are more than capable of stepping up and filling a back-up role behind Rice. Either way, it still would surprise me if the Ravens didn't add a veteran running back before the start of training camp.
The final 2012 schedule won't be released for another two months, but I'd be surprised – stunned, actually – if Ravens fans don't get their long-awaited Monday Night home game. For one, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti has made his disappointment known that the city hasn't played host to a Monday Night game since December 2007. And just look at the Ravens' home schedule. Of their eight home games, five of them are against playoff teams. That includes games against both Super Bowl participants – the New York Giants and the New England Patriots – and a contest against Tim Tebow's Denver Broncos. They also face the Dallas Cowboys at M&T Bank Stadium. I'd imagine the NFL will have several of those games earmarked for prime time.