Ravens, J. Lewis no closer to deal Receiver's promise may not be enough for multi-year contract

July 01, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Three months ago, the Ravens initiated talks about a multi-year contract extension for promising wide receiver Jermaine Lewis.

Now, three weeks before the opening of training camp, those negotiations have bogged down in silence and suspicion.

Where once the Ravens hoped to lock up Lewis with a long-term contract, they are suddenly prepared to force-feed a one-year deal for the NFL minimum of $216,000 for third-year players.

This is the face of contract negotiations in the era of free agency. He who has the hammer rules, and he who has the benefit of the rules hammers.

"The league paid $200 million for the system we're under,"

Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome said yesterday. "A guy like Eric Zeier benefited from being a %o restricted free agent. This is the system that is in place.

"There are no guarantees in two years when Jermaine becomes an unrestricted free agent they'll give us anything back."

Lewis, who played for minimum salaries of $131,000 and $164,000 his first two seasons, is expected to take departed free agent Derrick Alexander's starting wide receiver spot this season.

Last year, the 5-foot-7 Lewis led the NFL with a 15.6-yard punt return average, ranked fifth in the league with 2,025 combined yards, and caught 42 passes, six of them for touchdowns. He also missed five games with injuries.

Does Newsome believe Lewis will agree to a third year at minimum pay?

"If he wants to play football this year," Newsome said, striking a hard-line stance. "Those are the rules."

The rules say Lewis is an exclusive rights player as a two-year veteran. His original contract, signed in 1996 as a fifth-round draft choice out of Maryland, expired last season. But as an exclusive rights player, he has no options and cannot field offers from other teams, as Zeier, the Ravens' backup quarterback, did last winter.

Zeier, a restricted rights player, received a lucrative offer sheet from the Atlanta Falcons, then cashed in a $2 million signing bonus when the Ravens matched the offer.

Lewis may not hit the jackpot until after his fourth year, when he can become an unrestricted free agent. If forced to play this year at minimum salary, he would earn $238,000, getting an increase of $22,000 once the league's new collective bargaining agreement is ratified.

But there will be repercussions in that scenario, Lewis' Atlanta-based agent says.

"We've communicated to [the Ravens] in a quiet way that will play a key role in the future relationship of the club and Jermaine Lewis," Ray Anderson said. "It's going to have an effect on any player going forward when the rules swing back to the player."

Anderson said the Ravens insisted on a two-year contract in 1996 -- and smaller signing bonus -- instead of a three-year deal with the proviso they would pay Lewis for production.

"It's year three, and we think he's produced," Anderson said.

Since the Ravens initiated talks on a new contract last March, the sides have traded proposals. None has been acceptable. Pat Moriarty, the team's chief financial officer who has conducted negotiations, is away on vacation and has been unavailable the past two days.

"Once it was clear to us they really weren't interested in a multi-year deal unless they could get the player for what they wanted to pay him, we said, 'Let's focus on a fair one-year deal,' " Anderson said.

Even that seems difficult today.

NOTES: The Ravens have received 11,000 applications for 6,000 single-game tickets to the inaugural game in their new Camden Yards stadium on Sept. 6 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, according to Kevin Byrne, the team's vice president for public relations.

The team will hold a lottery to distribute the tickets, and each lottery winner will be able to purchase up to four tickets.

"We could sell 96,000 tickets to this game today," Byrne said of what is certain to be a sellout. "I think it reflects three things. It reflects a new stadium, it reflects that people expect us to be an improved team, and I think it reflects that people want to see the Steelers and Ravens play, that there's a rivalry growing here."

Pub Date: 7/01/98

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