Ravens' salary situation is solid

Under cap, club has room to keep own free agents, add others for '04 season

December 10, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

In the thick of this year's playoff race, the Ravens are taking steps now toward staying ahead of the pack next season.

Club officials have begun preliminary talks about restructuring the contract of center Mike Flynn and might next target nose tackle Kelly Gregg for a new deal.

Believed to be about $4 million under this season's salary cap, the Ravens could use that space to absorb a couple of reworked contracts and lessen the blow on future years. At season's end, Flynn is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, and Gregg is going to be a restricted free agent.

"We have some cap room, so we have approached a couple of guys to restructure," coach Brian Billick said. "To not take care of that and to let that pass by would be silly. So we're going to try to gobble up as much as we can so it doesn't roll into the next year."

A year ahead of many projections, the Ravens (8-5) are looking to capture their first division title this season, which could be a springboard for future success.

The Ravens have the least money - about $53.5 million - of any NFL team committed to the 2004 salary cap, which would give them at least $22 million to keep their own key free agents as well as add a few more pieces to a potential championship puzzle.

Of their 15 unrestricted free agents, five are starters (Flynn, cornerback Chris McAlister, receiver Marcus Robinson, offensive tackle Orlando Brown and linebacker Adalius Thomas) and two have been key contributors (kicker Matt Stover and quarterback Anthony Wright).

"We're trying to hold onto the mentality that this group can stay together for a while," Billick said. "But that still has to be orchestrated. And there will be surprises. It's going to be a very important offseason to keep the continuity of what now appears to be a positive situation."

The starting point appears to be Flynn, a durable and underrated member of the Ravens' physical offensive line. The coaching staff sees Flynn as the line's emotional and intellectual leader.

"I'm hoping things will get done here," Flynn said. "Fortunately, for me, this is a young team and they have a lot of salary cap space. The key is when you're happy. This is like a second home to me. It's easy to negotiate when you have that feeling about the place that you're at."

The most high-profile player of the Ravens' free-agent class will be McAlister. Over the past seven weeks, he has mounted a serious campaign for his first Pro Bowl invitation by shutting down some of the NFL's top receivers.

After being unable to reach agreement on a new contract last offseason, the Ravens decided to designate McAlister as their franchise player, keeping him off the free-agent market with a one-year, $5.7 million contract.

Under NFL collective bargaining rules, teams can designate one franchise player, who must receive a one-year offer worth the average salary of the five highest-paid players at his position.

Talks with McAlister on a multi-year deal will resume after the season, although he has no doubt where he'll be playing next season.

"I ain't going nowhere," McAlister said. "For the record, McAlister will be a Raven. I'll be a Raven for my entire natural-born life. When I retire, I'm going to work up with Ozzie [Newsome] in the scouting department."

Why is McAlister so adamant about staying?

"I love the system," McAlister said. "I love the way we get treated as players, from the head coach to the owner. I haven't experienced any other team, and I don't want to experience any other team. But I've known guys who have come in and out of this system from other teams, and it's not pretty out there. So I'm real comfortable with what I've got going on here."

The other free agent who will receive interest is Stover.

In a league in which dependable kickers are harder to find, Stover has raised his stock considerably this season, converting 29 of 31 field-goal attempts, including 19 in a row. He is the third-most accurate kicker in league history.

"I want to stay here," Stover said. "I've been very loyal with 13 years with this team. I told my agent many times, `Why do I want to go anywhere else?' But it is a free market, and you do what is best for you and your family. God willing, we can work it out."

Other decisions will have to be made at quarterback, receiver and cornerback.

Wright, who is 3-1 as the Ravens' starter, could be re-signed since he is entering a market that could be flooded with the likes of Kurt Warner, Mark Brunell and Tim Couch.

There may be some discussion on the future of two of the Ravens' top free-agent signings this offseason - receiver Frank Sanders and cornerback Corey Fuller -whose roles have been de-emphasized. Sanders, who is signed through 2006, is scheduled to make $2 million next season, and Fuller, who is signed through 2005, is set to earn $1 million next year.

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