The Ravens were several hours into trying to recruit Ben Grubbs' potential replacement when they learned Thursday morning that their Pro Bowl left guard had reached a long-term agreementon with the New Orleans Saints.
Team officials knew his departure was the likely outcome when he hit free agency Tuesday at 4 p.m, and their preparations for life after Grubbs began earlier in the morning when they welcomed free agent guard Evan Mathis to their training facility for a visit.
Mathis, who blocked for the Philadelphia Eagles last season, spent the day with Ravens officials, and was expected to have dinner and stay the night in the area. However, the two sides have yet to hammer out a deal and the Ravens face some competition for Mathis' services as the Eagles and Washington Redskins are among the teams reportedly interested in him.
Mathis, 30, was ranked by most evaluators as the third best free agent guard available. The top one, Carl Nicks, signed a five-year, $47.5 million deal, which reportedly included $31 million guaranteed, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Wednesday. The Saints quickly replaced Nicks with Grubbs, agreeing to a five-year, $36 million pact, which reportedly includes a $10-million signing bonus and $16 million guaranteed.
Now, it's up to the Ravens to find a replacement for the 28-year-old Grubbs and begin to bolster an offensive line that now has holes at center and left guard, and faces some questions about the status of left tackle Bryant McKinnie.
Signing Mathis would certainly be a good first step. Mathis has played for four teams in seven seasons, but he had his best season in 2011-12 while starting 15 games in his only campaign with the Eagles.
Mathis was a third-round draft pick out of the University of Alabama for the Carolina Panthers in 2005. He spent three seasons with the Panthers. He started the 2008 season with the Miami Dolphins and finished it with the Cincinnati Bengals, with whom he played until 2010. He has started in 37 of his 73 career games.
Represented by Drew Rosenhaus and pursued by several teams, Mathis is in line for a nice contract, but he doesn't figure to be in Grubbs' range.
The Ravens wanted to keep Grubbs, making it one of their offseason priorities. They made him a substantial offer last month, which according to sources, was similar to the five-year, $32.5 million pact that the Ravens gave right guard Marshal Yanda last July.
However, Grubbs wanted more than that and was seemingly intent on shopping his services on the open market. His status undoubtedly was given a boost when Nicks signed the huge deal with the Buccaneers, leaving the Saints in need of another protector for their record-setting quarterback Drew Brees.
"Initially, there was a lot of uncertainty with being drafted to a team and making my home there and now the possibility of having to leave was definitely on my mind," Grubbs said in an interview on the Saints team website. "I just left it up to God and I knew wherever I decided to go it would be the right spot for me. Luckily New Orleans had interest and I had interest in them. I am thankful and blessed to say I am a New Orleans Saint today."
Grubbs, the Ravens' first-round selection in the 2007 draft, had been a mainstay on the offensive line for the past five seasons. He started 65 consecutive games before he missed six contests this past season with a toe injury.
He returned and helped pave the way for running back Ray Rice to have his best season as a pro, earning Pro Bowl honors for the first time in his career.
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"Going against Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs every day at practice, you can't help but survive or die, and I chose to survive," Grubbs told neworleansaints.com. "We made each other better and challenged each other. They're great players. I respect all of them and they definitely helped me develop my game a lot faster than it probably would have."
Grubbs' departure adds to the uncertainty of the Ravens' offensive line, but the picture could become more clear over the next couple of days. With Mathis still in town, the Ravens will undoubtedly try to close the deal with him, securing their left guard.
Former Houston Texans right tackle Eric Winston, who was a surprise cut earlier this week, will make Baltimore one of his free agent stops. The Ravens also have a lot of competition in trying to sign him, and if they are able to, it could move Michael Oher back to left tackle and spell the end of McKinnie's tenure in Baltimore.
The timing of Winston's visit is interesting because the Ravens hold a $500,000 roster bonus on McKinnie that is due Saturday. McKinnie was at the team headquarters Thursdayas Raven officials undoubtedly wanted to get a feel for what kind of shape the left guard is in. McKinnie, 32, has long struggled with conditioning issues.
The Ravens are also still negotiating with free agent center Matt Birk, who informed the team last month that he wanted to return instead of retiring.
NOTES: Multiple reports have Ravens inside linebacker Jameel McClain taking a free agent visit Friday to see the Denver Broncos. The Ravens said that they want him back, but there has been no movement in that direction to this point. If he signs elsewhere, McClain would become the third Ravens defensive starter to go elsewhere in free agency. … Safety Haruki Nakamura spent the day meeting with Carolina Panthers officials. … The Ravens re-signed outside linebacker Chavis Williams, who was active for five games this past season and made two tackles on special teams after being promoted from the practice squad in November. Williams was an exclusive-rights free agent and the Ravens originally had not tendered him a contract.