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OWINGS MILLS — Running back Jamal Lewis signed a one-year contract with the Cleveland Browns on Wednesday night, setting the stage for the Baltimore Ravens to broker a trade as soon as today for Buffalo Bills runner Willis McGahee.
Now that Lewis has officially ended his tenure with Baltimore after seven seasons for a deal with a reported maximum value of $3.5 million, the Ravens are intent on acquiring McGahee as his replacement and are in the middle of discussions with Buffalo. Several NFL agents and executives predicted that Baltimore will execute a trade for McGahee, a physical, tackle-breaking runner.
Since the teamâ€™s all-time leading rusher signed with their AFC North rival, the Ravens no longer have the leverage of going back to the former NFL Offensive Player of the Year as a secondary option. The Bills could try to demand a second-round draft pick instead of a third-round choice for the disgruntled former University of Miami star.
It might even take the exchange of a second-round choice and a fifth-round pick to finalize the trade for the 6-foot, 228-pound former first-round draft pick.
The Bills are eager to cut ties with McGahee and are scheduled to host Corey Dillon today, a free agent runner who follows Chris Brown and Dominic Rhodes visiting Buffalo.
Lewis, 27, repeatedly turned down the Ravensâ€™ standing offer of a one-year deal believed to be worth $2 million that Baltimore was unwilling to increase.
Just a week ago, both sides expressed confidence that the former Pro Bowl runner would ultimately rejoin the team after he was cut before a $5 million signing bonus was due.
Ironically, Lewis joins a franchise that he usually ran roughshod over, including an NFL-record 295-yard performance in 2003.
This was Lewisâ€™ first visit, and it came after talks hit an impasse with Baltimore and rumors about the Ravensâ€™ interest in McGahee advanced into a full-fledged offensive.
McGahee has rushed for 3,365 yards and 24 touchdowns since sitting out his rookie season while rehabilitating a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in the Fiesta Bowl. Heâ€™s coming off a career-low season of 990 yards and six touchdowns.
McGahee, 25, is due a $2.15 million base salary in 2007, the final year of his rookie contract, and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, will seek a lucrative contract extension.
McGahee has fallen out of favor in Buffalo with three paternity suits in two years and his suggestion that the Bills should move to Toronto in an interview with Penthouse magazine, later saying his controversial remarks were taken out of context.
Although Lewis gained 2,066 yards in 2003 for the second-highest total in league history, he has rushed for only 3,104 yards and nine touchdowns over the past three seasons.
Drafted fifth overall in 2000 on the recommendation of Browns general manager Phil Savage, a former Ravens director of player personnel, Lewis rushed for 7,801 yards and scored 45 touchdowns for Baltimore. He found trouble off the field, serving four months in a federal prison in 2004 for a guilty plea to a reduced charge in a cocaine conspiracy case, and ran afoul of the NFLâ€™s substance-abuse policies.
Meanwhile, the Ravens cut ties with popular veteran guard Edwin Mulitalo in a financial maneuver he said team officials told him was to free up salary-cap space.
As the Ravens worked on addressing their starting running back vacancy, they delivered a painful goodbye to Mulitalo, a fixture at left guard next to All-Pro tackle Jonathan Ogden for the past eight seasons. Mulitalo, 32, was limited to a career-low four games last season due to a torn triceps tendon that required surgery and forced him onto injured reserve.
When they cut Mulitalo, the Ravens exercised a clause in the NFL collective bargaining agreement that allows them to release a player before June 1 while having their salary cap reflect it as a June 1 cut.
Baltimore assigned that designation where his cap impact will be spread over two seasons with $2 million saved for this season, with $1.7 million counted against the 2008 salary cap as the remaining portion of his pro-rated, $5.4 million signing bonus. Mulitalo was due a $2 million base salary for 2007, and had a salary-cap figure of $2.85 million.
â€œI was told the Ravens are going with young guys,â€ said Mulitalo, a 6-foot-3, 350-pounder whom Baltimore drafted in the fourth round in 1999. â€œI would have liked to come back and compete for my job, but it was a great ride.
â€œBaltimore will always be home. It hurts, but this is a business. Again, Iâ€™m grateful.â€
The Ravens already have Mulitalo’s replacement with former fourth-round draft pick Jason Brown, who started 12 games last season after Mulitalo hurt his right arm against the San Diego Chargers.
â€œWhen you release a player like Edwin, it gives you pause," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "This is the cold side of the business. All he did was everything we asked him to do and more."
Mulitalo was one of the most active players in the community, especially with his Big Ed’s Band Foundation that contributed musical instruments to Baltimore area schools.
He was one of the last remaining players from the team’s Super Bowl championship team.
Despite the adversity of the past two years, including gout in his knee in 2005 and his father’s death before that season, Mulitalo said he plans to keep playing football.
â€œMy phone has already been ringing,â€ Mulitalo said. "I still want to play the game."
NOTES: Mulitalo predicted that Ogden, who has been pondering retirement, will return for next season. He joked that Ogden isn’t going to walk away from a $6 million salary. … Linebacker Jarret Johnson signed a five-year deal, according to NFL Players Association figures, with base salaries of $600,000 in 2007, $2 million in 2008, $4 million in 2009 and $3.5 million in 2010 and 2011. It was initially reported as a three-year deal, but Baltimore announced that it was a six-year pact.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland