Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas might finally be out of position.
Despite being the team's most versatile performer the past two seasons, he'll find it hard to command a big, multi-year contract from the Ravens and seems destined to become the team's designated franchise player, which prohibits him from becoming an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
With the tag, Thomas would draw the average salary of the top five players in the league at that position, or the Ravens would receive two first-round picks for compensation if they decided to trade Thomas, a highly unlikely scenario.
But if the Ravens can't work out a favorable deal, they should put the franchise tag on him because Thomas has a major factor working against him, and that's his age. He'll be 30 in August, and that's a risky number for any player, and even riskier for a linebacker who sometimes plays defensive end, safety and gunner on special teams.
The Ravens are in negotiations with Bus Cook, Thomas' agent, and have until Feb. 22 to decide if they want to use the tag, but the Ravens shouldn't be sweating this deal. If nothing else, they should pay Thomas the average salary, which was $7.1 million last season, and about $2 million more than what most good linebackers make per season.
It's a good deal for the Ravens for a number of reasons. Thomas is probably asking for a three-year deal worth about $15 million, which would include a $10 million to $12 million signing bonus. That's OK if the player is young because you're paying for the upside. But it's not logical to give that kind of guaranteed money to a player who is likely to hit his downside soon. Plus, a lot of players have a great year during the season in which the contract ends. If the Ravens put the tag on Thomas, they'll see if he can maintain that level.
Also, let's take a realistic look at this team. The Ravens have about one more season left for a serious run, and then they'll have to start dropping veterans like Ray Lewis, Steve McNair, Derrick Mason, Samari Rolle, Jonathan Ogden, Mike Flynn and Edwin Mulitalo. They definitely need Thomas back next season because he was an integral part of the Ravens' No. 1-ranked defense.
But after the 2007 season, there are probably going to be some major changes, so why should the Ravens commit for several seasons to a player who's over 30? Again, it's the upside vs. the downside. Isn't that why the Ravens haven't given Ray Lewis the new deal he has been asking for the past two seasons? Lewis turned 30 two years ago, which is near the start of his decline.
Thomas can put up a valid argument. He posted a career-high 11 sacks this season and ranked third on the team with 106 tackles. He was named to the Associated Press All-Pro team and earned a spot on the AFC Pro Bowl squad. There isn't a more versatile or durable player on the team. Thomas has played every defensive position except cornerback, but also has matched up one-on-one with receivers like Antwaan Randle El and Hines Ward.
There aren't too many 270-pound players who can play the run, rush the passer and run stride for stride with a running back or tight end down the middle of the field. Thomas is a self-made player, a sixth-round draft pick out of Southern Mississippi in 2000 who has become a two-time Pro Bowl pick. He's great in the locker room, and few of his teammates know the defense better. They usually come to him for instruction.
But still, Thomas is close to 30.
In 2004, he signed a three-year contract before the start of the season, then became a full-time starter, replacing the injured Peter Boulware. Thomas played well despite not getting a starter's salary. Thomas hasn't forgotten that. This time, he's looking for the big contract.
The Ravens have used the franchise tag, but done so reluctantly. The designation has caused hard feelings between the player and the team. In some cases, it has affected performance.
But in the case of Thomas, he'll be getting a substantial raise from the $1.456 million he made this past season. Maybe he'll be disgruntled, but there won't be any sympathy here. He'll get a $5.6 million increase. If he complains, maybe the Ravens ought to give him a cab ride through the Ninth Ward in New Orleans.
Thomas is far from over the hill. Actually, he has played his best football in the past two seasons. But that's not what this deal is about. The Ravens don't want to pay for the past but for what's ahead. The franchise tag puts them right in the immediate future with Thomas.