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Deadline day for Ravens and Rice

No longer do the Ravens have months, weeks or even days to reach agreement on a long-term contract extension with Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice. They are now down to hours to accomplish what they established in February as one of their biggest offseason priorities.

The two sides have until 4 p.m. today to reach a deal or Rice will be in line to play the season under the $7.7 million franchise tag. The 25-year-old would then have to wait until after the season to revisit a long-term extension with the Ravens.

Both sides – Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and Rice’s agent, Todd France – have been predictably mum leading to the deadline, and the sense is that there remains a sizable gap between what Rice and France are looking for and what the Ravens are willing to pay.

But as the expression goes, everything can change in one phone call. On the eve of the deadline to sign designated franchise players last year, all the talk was that the Ravens weren’t going to be able to sign defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. That talk held until about three hours before the deadline when the reports surfaced that the two sides neared an eventual five-year, $61 million deal.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying the same thing will happen in Rice’s case, but deadlines have an uncanny way of bridging a difference of opinion. Both sides want to get this done, so I’m sure the negotiations will go down to the wire.

Either way, here’s what both results will mean:

 If the Ravens reach agreement with Rice

Rice will become one of the highest-paid running backs in the game and the Ravens will secure the long-term future of their top offensive weapon, along with a player who could potentially serve as the face of the franchise on the field and in the community after Ray Lewis and Ed Reed move on.

The Ravens, who have had a difficult offseason with the loss of several key free agents and the injury to reigning NFL Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, will eliminate one potential training camp distraction and can turn their attention to trying to lock up quarterback Joe Flacco, who will be a free agent after the 2012-13 season.

Depending on how the deal is structured, the Ravens could realistically give themselves some breathing room under the salary cap if they feel the need to address a position during training camp. The Ravens are less than $1 million under the salary cap, giving them less cap space than any other team in the NFL.

If the Ravens can’t reach an agreement with Rice

Rice will be in line to play the season under the $7.7 million franchise tag, but he’ll still have a decision to make. Will he sign the franchise tender and report to training camp next week on time or will he opt to not immediately sign the tender and hold out of camp? Rice wouldn’t be subject to a fine for missing camp assuming he doesn’t sign the franchise tender.

The Ravens and Rice would have to wait until after the season to make another attempt to hammer out a long-term deal. Rice also could be subject to the franchise tag again next year, but that could leave the Ravens in a tough spot in trying to retain Flacco. Rules allow teams to use the franchise tag on only one player per season, and if long-term extensions can’t be reached, the Ravens could have a decision to make between Rice and Flacco.

The Ravens could have a few disenchanted players in their locker room this training camp. Rice is a great team guy who is highly respected throughout the locker room, so the expectation is he would handle the development professionally and not become a distraction. But he has made it clear he feels like he has outperformed his rookie deal and has earned a long-term commitment from the team. Flacco, as usual, has also said all the right things, but it would be understandable if he was disappointed without a new deal, especially after team officials have talked several times about locking him up before the season. Then, there’s Reed who still hasn’t confirmed that he’s playing this season and has spent the offseason questioning the team’s commitment to him.

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