R. Lewis tops out at $26M Signing makes Raven highest-paid MLB

November 20, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

Nearly two weeks ago in practice at the Ravens' training complex in Owings Mills, team owner Art Modell pulled middle linebacker Ray Lewis aside and chatted with him on a golf cart.

Modell asked Lewis to name the top five linebackers in the NFL, and as Lewis finished his list, Modell promised him that he would become the highest paid of the group.

Last night, Modell delivered, as Lewis signed a four-year contract extension worth $26 million, which included a $7 million signing bonus, making him the NFL's highest-paid middle linebacker, as well as one of the top five defensive players in the league in salary.

According to Lewis, the team's leading tackler the past three years, the language of the contract was finalized yesterday morning. He signed shortly after meeting with Modell following practice and a team meeting.

"He said he was definitely going to take care of me, and as far as I'm concerned, he's a man of his word," Lewis said of Modell. "I don't know what he's told anyone else, but I know what he told Ray Lewis and he came through. There will be no more, 'He's this, he's that, he's underpaid.' There will be no more of that. I wanted to stay here because I love this team, the players and this city."

Modell said he had no problems paying Lewis an average of $6.5 million per season because he rated Lewis the best in the game, and better than any other linebacker who has played for his franchise in Cleveland or Baltimore.

Modell said his passion for the game sets Lewis apart from other players.

"This organization has rewarded Ray Lewis for a job well done and the job to be done for many, many years to come," Modell said. "This is a reflection of the Modell family and the organization because we want to protect the hard-core players on our team, the producers on our team, people that excel at what they do.

"This season has been tough and it's unlike something we have experienced often in this organization. Ray Lewis loves to hit. He has speed and a passion for the game which separates the men from the boys. He's been loyal to this organization. This is a commitment to our future."

The Pittsburgh Steelers' Levon Kirkland was previously the highest-paid middle linebacker in terms of annual average salary.

Kirkland signed a five-year, $25.3 million contract last April 1, topping the six-year, $27.1 million deal signed by San Diego's Junior Seau in September 1997.

Nearly a month ago, Roosevelt Barnes, one of Lewis' agents, had proposed a five-year deal worth $40 million that included a $10 million signing bonus. The negotiations hit a snag last week when the Ravens offered Lewis a contract that averaged slightly more than $6.1 million a year, and Lewis' agents wanted a signing bonus of $8 million, about $1.2 million more than the team wanted to offer.

Lewis, 6 feet 1 and 240 pounds, had two years left on his original contract that pays him $675,000 this season and would have paid him $770,500 next year.

He said he never had any problems concentrating during the past month of negotiations. On Oct. 19, the Ravens signed wide receiver/punt returner Jermaine Lewis to a five-year contract worth $16 million.

"It didn't affect me," Ray Lewis said. "I told my people [agents] to take care of that and that I'm going to do what I have to do. This is a sign of respect.

"It's also a sign that we're going to have some quality young ZTC guys around for a long time and that we can develop some continuity and create a strong bond."

On Wednesday, Modell said he had not addressed the possibility of re-signing other possible free agents before the end of the season.

The list would include offensive tackle Orlando Brown, center Wally Williams, tight end Eric Green and running back Errict Rhett.

Brown and Williams might demand big contracts and it's unlikely the Ravens will pursue both. The team has yet to enter negotiations with the two, who have the same agent, Tom Condon.

"I don't want to assume anything other than we play Cincinnati Sunday and that we have six games left on the schedule to try and win," Williams said.

"This whole money thing has been blown out of proportion. Nobody is trying to make them sign me back and I understand that. After the season is over, we'll sit back and see what happens."

Ray Lewis is the team's leading tackler for the third straight season with 79. He had 142 tackles in 1996 and led the league with 210 last year when he was named to the AFC's Pro Bowl squad.

Asked if he was going home to celebrate, Lewis said yes, and he intended to party with his mother.

"She has been on her knees praying for me a long time," he said.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Cincinnati Bengals

Site: Cinergy Field, Cincinnati

When: Sunday, 4: 15 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Bengals by 1 1/2

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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