Team's philosophy has no room for Thomas

ON THE RAVENS

February 23, 2007|By MIKE PRESTON

About a month ago, the Ravens revealed a new philosophy at the end-of-the-season news conference in which they stated they wouldn't mortgage the future for the present. Yesterday, they stayed with that approach, basically allowing Pro Bowl outside linebacker Adalius Thomas to become an unrestricted free agent.

The Ravens had until 4 p.m. yesterday to put the franchise tag on Thomas or allow him to begin negotiating with other teams next Friday, and they chose to let Thomas test his value. If the Ravens were truly committed to a win-now attitude, they should have put the designation on Thomas. But if they are serious about a new direction, they did exactly what was required.

It won't be a popular decision around town.

Thomas is well-liked publicly and in the locker room. His desire to succeed and versatility complemented the blue-collar work ethic of this city. But the Ravens are only about $3 million under the salary cap, and they would have to be really creative to sign him to a lucrative, long-term deal, which meant possibly cutting some veterans.

Faced with those possibilities, the Ravens told Thomas thanks and farewell. If the market doesn't provide Thomas the big money from another team, the Ravens might be able to re-sign him. Truth be told, we might as well say goodbye now.

The preference here would have been to designate Thomas as the franchise player and pay him $7.2 million this season, which is the average of the five highest-paid linebackers in the NFL. The window seemed to close last season for the Ravens as far as winning a Super Bowl, but there would be a glimmer of hope if the team retained every player from the league's No. 1-ranked defense in 2006.

But the Ravens say they don't open and close windows anymore. They now have the same philosophy as the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. They want to be competitive every season, but at the same time not overpay players to the point where it hurts them in the future. The Ravens went through a similar purge after the 2001 season, when they had to dump many high-priced veterans.

If that's their new approach, the Ravens deserve time to devise a strategy and develop the right formula. Regardless of any scenario, Thomas didn't deserve the long-term contract he wanted here, one that might have paid him more than $12 million in a signing bonus. Despite playing at a high level, he's nearly 30, the age at which most players are declining.

Signing him to a long-term deal probably would have forced the Ravens to cut a veteran like center Mike Flynn, guard Edwin Mulitalo or running back Jamal Lewis. That's too steep a price to keep one player.

Everyone is aware of Thomas' versatility. He could play end, linebacker or safety. He was once the top gunner on punt teams in the league, a 270-pound missile who always drew double teams. But while the Ravens hyped Thomas during the season, they also knew that he benefited from the defensive system used in Baltimore. He's too big to play full-time as an outside linebacker and not strong enough to be a full-time defensive end.

The Ravens gambled that there wouldn't be serious interest in Thomas when he became a free agent in 2003, and they're banking on it again. There is speculation that the San Francisco 49ers are interested, as well as the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints.

Who knows? But the Ravens are willing to roll the dice.

"We will continue to have negotiations with Adalius," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "I don't know what the market will bear out for him."

The stats of defensive end-outside linebacker Terrell Suggs probably also played a part in the Ravens' decision not to re-sign Thomas. The Ravens also have a lot of money invested in linebackers Ray Lewis and Bart Scott, but Suggs is scheduled to become a free agent next season. Do you tie up a lot of money in Thomas, or Suggs, who is also a Pro Bowl player and a few years younger?

The Ravens have no one on their roster who can replace Thomas, who had career-high 11 sacks and was third on the team in tackles with 106 last season. Four-year veteran Jarret Johnson is listed as Thomas' backup. He is just as big, but nowhere near as athletic.

There is one other problem: If the Ravens don't re-sign Johnson before March 2, he could become a free agent, too. The Ravens also like third-year defensive end-outside linebacker Dan Cody, even though Cody has missed extensive time the past two seasons with knee injuries.

The assumption is that the Ravens will re-sign Johnson but give Scott some of Thomas' old duties. Scott might have to cover running backs and tight ends downfield while Johnson becomes more of a pass rusher. It will be a change, but it won't drastically hurt the defense. At last count, the Ravens have lost two defensive coordinators since 2002, and there has been no significant drop-off.

When Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed missed substantial playing time in 2005, the Ravens still had one of the best defenses in the NFL. They'll survive without Thomas. It was a trade-off of pleasing one player or risking cutting two. There also was a new philosophy at stake, and this was the Ravens' first test.

Whether or not the new approach works, we'll find out. But as of yesterday, the Ravens weren't backing off.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

Read Mike Preston's Ravens Central blog at www.baltimoresun.com/ravenscentral.

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