OWINGS MILLS — As the clock ticks down toward the launch of free agency next week, Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome remains hopeful of locking up All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis to a new contract.
Although Lewis will celebrate his 34th birthday in May and is believed to have hefty financial demands, the Ravens are still confident in their ability to re-sign the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Lewis’ seven-year, $50 million contract has expired and he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.
Meanwhile, it doesn’t look nearly as promising for the following unrestricted free agents to return: center Jason Brown, linebacker Bart Scott, kicker Matt Stover and strong safety Jim Leonhard.
One reason why the Ravens are optimistic about Lewis coming back is the team’s dramatic resurgence this past season under new coach John Harbaugh and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco as Baltimore reached the AFC title game.
Plus, team owner Steve Bisciotti, who’s close to Lewis, has already indicated that he believes the Ravens would outspend any other team if Lewis should make it to the open market on Feb. 27 at 12:01 a.m.
"Economics are always a part of it," Newsome told reporters Saturday at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. "I don’t know what the other part of it would be. He has a very good relationship with coach Harbaugh. You know of his relationship with Steve, and he and I have a very good relationship.
"And I think he realizes where our football team is at right now, in that we have Joe and that we can contend in our division and in our conference to try to get him to another Super Bowl. So, those things are in place, but economics always play a big part of it."
The Ravens met with Lewis’ agent this week in Indianapolis and have also held discussions with Brown and Scott.
Lewis’ importance to the Ravens would seem to indicate that they’ll make every effort to keep the 10-time Pro Bowl selection and that he’ll be interested in returning.
"We like to think that," Newsome said. "What you all do not get the opportunity to see like I do on a daily basis is how he interacts with the young players.
“He’s a great mentor not only to the other young linebackers, but some of the young offensive players. So, he has value that goes beyond his production on the football field."
That said, Lewis has already made it clear that he doesn’t want to accept the hometown discount that Bisciotti had suggested.
Meanwhile, Dallas Cowboys star outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware told the Cowboys’ official Web site that Lewis has been lobbying for Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones to bid on him.
However, it’s believed that Jones is more interested in signing Ware to a long-term contract than spending big money on an older player like Lewis.
"When we played Ray Lew is and Baltimore at the end of the season, he came over and pointed to my helmet," Ware said. "He said, ‘I want to wear this star on my helmet. That’s my dream.’ When we got to the Pro Bowl, he did it again. He came at me every day. It’s a great opportunity for him. His door is open. He’s trying to get down where the star is. He told me he needed me to get him Jerry Jones’ phone number for him.
"I just busted out laughing. Believe, me, he is genuine. He calls me about once a week and talks about it then. I even said, ‘Hey, Ray, I’m tired of talking about this. You need to find Jerry Jones’ number and fly out there and talk to him.’ He says things like, ‘D-Ware, I need to get down there. You’re the pass-rush guy and I need to play with you. Just call Jerry for me.’"
Newsome seemed to indicate that the 13-year tenure of Stover, one of the most accurate kickers in league history, could be coming to an end.
Stover, who said last month that Harbaugh told him but didn’t guarantee him that the team would like for him to return, has been the only kicker in franchise history.
"He’s probably looking and we’re looking, too," Newsome said of Stover. "I think that’s probably the best way of saying it."
As for Leonhard, who excelled as a replacement for injured strong safety Dawan Landry and as a punt returner after signing with little fanfare last spring, Newsome acknowledged that he may have better opportunities to start elsewhere.
The Ravens would have Leonhard compete with Landry in training camp. They aren’t giving up on Landry, who is recovering from a spinal cord concussion and has yet to be cleared for contact.
And Newsome drafted two promising safeties — Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski — last spring.
The New York Jets, coached by former Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons and the Cleveland Browns are among the teams expected to be interested in Leonhard, who was cast off by the Buffalo Bills a year ago.
"I know Jimmy will probably be attractive to other teams," Newsome said. "The thing that Jimmy has to deal with is that Dawan Landry is coming back and we’ve got Nakamura and Zbikowski.
"If he’s coming back, he’s competing for a starting job. If he goes to one of those 31 other teams, he has the chance to be a starter and everybody wants to play. I understand Jimmy wanting to go somewhere else."
While Newsome, who assigned a $10.2 million franchise tag to Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs last week, is confident in his ability to work something out with the team’s other high-profile free agents, it’s going to be an extremely difficult task.
"We always feel like we’re willing to pay more for our players than other people will," Newsome said. "But over the past few years, we have lost players because they’ve had the opportunity to help their families by making a lot of money."
It’s believed that Brown, who has started at guard in the past, wants to be paid as a top guard like the Jets’ Alan Faneca, who inked a five-year, $40 million contract last year. The Ravens are more inclined to pay him as a center, which would mean less money.
"Whether they can keep both Bart and Jason as Ravens, and that is both of their goals, it’s really going to be up to the Ravens," said Harold Lewis, who represents both Scott and Brown. "It’s not going to be up to us. They have a lot of decisions to make about their linebackers and Jason.
"If Bart or Jason should make it to free agency, I have no doubt in my mind that both of those two players should be in major demand throughout the league from one coast to the next. There’s a real demand for interior offensive linemen, centers or guards, and linebackers who can play in the 3-4 or the 4-3 defense like Bart."
Among the teams expected to possibly have interest in Brown: the Washington Redskins, the Miami Dolphins and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Newsome noted that he’s not only worried about the Jets poaching his free agents. He also referenced Browns general manager George Kokinis, the Ravens’ former director of pro personnel.
"I’m just as concerned of George taking them," Newsome said. "That tree is all over now."
The Jets, Arizona Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs are among the teams that are expected to consider making a bid on Scott.
However, Scott has already been told by Harbaugh that the team wants him back. If negotiations with Lewis fall through, Scott could possibly be installed as the team’s middle linebacker with last year’s third-round draft pick, Tavares Gooden, stepping into Scott’s position.
"He told me that the team was interested in retaining my services and I always made it clear that I wanted to be here in Baltimore," Scott told NFL Sirius Radio recently. "I understand it’s a business. It’s unique to free agency that you have three star linebackers up at the same time. You can make an argument for any one of those guys. Now, if you’re able to keep all three of us you would almost have to be a miracle worker.
"I don’t know if Terrell Suggs’ hometown discount thing is going to work out. I wish he would have talked to me before he said that because I never knew that. I’ve been giving discounts since I’ve been in the league. I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve been the Wal-Mart rollback special since I’ve been in the league, man."
When asked if he could envision playing for Ryan again in New York and if he could be a leader for the defense like Lewis has been in Baltimore, Scott had a quick answer ready.
"Exactly," he said. "I can go in there and I can guarantee all that running coming up the middle, that’ll stop."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.