Less than 10 minutes before the deadline that would help decide his football future in Baltimore, a smiling Ray Rice stepped out of the Ravens' training complex in Owings Mills and started exchanging hugs and handshakes outside his car.
This is what the 25-year-old had waited for all offseason: a multi-year commitment from the Ravens, and a chance to report to training camp next week armed with a new lucrative contract and long-term security. Just minutes before Monday's 4 p.m. deadline to sign designated franchise players, the Ravens signed their star running back to a heavily front-loaded five-year, $40 million contract extension that includes $24 million in guaranteed money.
Rice, who led the NFL in yards from the line of scrimmage last season and finished second in the league in rushing, is now the third highest paid running back in the league behind the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson (seven years, $100 million with $36 million guaranteed) and the Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson (four years, $53.5 million with $30 million guaranteed).
"This is another example of [owner] Steve Bisciotti's commitment to the team and to our fans to retain our core players," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement . "Ray has been an integral part of us earning the playoffs in each of his four seasons, and that includes helping us get to two AFC Championship games. His production on the field speaks for itself, and his leadership in the locker room is outstanding."
Rice left the team complex without speaking to reporters, intent on spending the night celebrating with family and friends. He's expected to talk to the media next Wednesday when he reports to training camp, a day before the first full-team workout. However, he posted a message on his Twitter page, saying, "Baltimore I'm back well I never left lol."
Several of his teammates also posted reactions on Twitter, including Rice's fullback, Vonta Leach who called the new deal, "well deserved," and wide receiver Torrey Smith who said, "Yes Sir," and "Ozzie is the man."
The signing continues the Ravens' trend of reaching long-term agreements with designated "franchise" players. The Ravens did it last year with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata just hours before the deadline and the tag has also served as a precursor for past deals with linebacker Terrell Suggs and cornerback Chris McAlister among others.
If the Ravens and Rice were unable to reach a deal by Monday's deadline, the two-time Pro Bowl running back would have been in line to play the season under the $7.7 million franchise tag. All extension talks would have been tabled until after the 2012-13 season, and there was also the potential that Rice could put off signing his franchise tender and hold out from training camp next week.
Now, all those things are moot points and the Ravens not only secured Rice's future, but they have given themselves a little breathing room under the salary cap, and a chance to focus on the futures of quarterback Joe Flacco and safety Ed Reed, who could both be free agents following the upcoming season.
Rice's deal includes a $15 million signing bonus and $5 million in escalator clauses. Rice reportedly could make as much as $17 million in the first year of his deal despite his base salary being just $2 million. The contract actually reduces Rice's salary cap number and leaves the Ravens with about $3.5 million in salary cap space to perhaps put toward a deal with Flacco or add a veteran during training camp.
It also opens up the franchise tag to possibly use next offseason on Flacco, who would otherwise have the option of testing free agency. But at least for now, those factors were secondary to making sure Rice was in place and content going forward.
A second-round pick out of Rutgers in 2008, the same draft where the Ravens selected Flacco, Rice has long faced questions about whether his size (5-foot-8, 210 pounds) would prevent him from being an every-down running back. All he has done is emerge as the Ravens' top offensive player and one of the NFL's most dangerous all-purpose threats.
A starter the past three years, Rice has been selected to two Pro Bowls in four seasons, and already made an imprint on the Ravens' record books. In 61 career regular season games, Rice has rushed for 4,377 yards and 24 touchdowns. He's also caught 250 balls for 2,235 yards and five touchdowns. He's second in franchise history in rushing yards behind Jamal Lewis (7,801 yards). He's also the Ravens' all-time receiving leader by a running back, and leads the NFL in receptions and receiving yards by a back since he entered the league in 2008.
The 2011 season was clearly his finest as he led the NFL in yards from scrimmage with a career-high 2,068 yards. He accumulated a career-high 1,364 rushing yards, second behind the Jacksonville Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew, and led the Ravens with 76 receptions for a career-high 704 yards. His 15 touchdowns — 12 rushing and three receiving and he also threw a touchdown pass — set a franchise record.
As vital as Rice has been to the Ravens' offense, some questioned the logic of making a huge financial commitment to a running back because the position has been de-emphasized in the pass-happy NFL. The career span of a running back has also steadily declined due to the pounding that they take, making any long-term deal a risk.
However, Rice has been extremely durable over his four-year career, missing just three games, all in his rookie season. Not only has he been a huge factor on the field, Rice has been extremely active in the community. Just last Friday, Rice played host to an anti-bullying rally in Howard County.
"I should say something about his community efforts; I think they are almost unmatched by any player in the NFL," Newsome said. "You'd have a hard time finding a player who does more or is as serious about helping others as Ray is. He is one of those players you can proudly say, 'He's on our team.'"
Rice made clear on numerous occasions that he wanted to remain in Baltimore long-term, but the deal and negotiations with his agent Todd France took a while to materialize despite two other long-term deals for standout running backs earlier this offseason possibly serving as blueprints.
The Philadelphia Eagles' LeSean McCoy, who is two years younger than Rice and was a year away from free agency, agreed to a five-year, $45-million deal that includes nearly $21 million in guaranteed money last month. Weeks earlier, the Houston Texans' Arian Foster agreed to a five-year, $43.5 million pact. On Monday, the Chicago Bears signed franchised running back Matt Forte to a four-year, $32 million deal, leaving Rice as the last running back standing.
As it turned out, Rice's wait lasted only a couple of more hours, and both sides achieved what they have been seeking all offseason.