OWINGS MILLS – Seven hours apart at the Baltimore Ravens’ training complex, an arrival and a departure illustrated different outlooks following the NFL lockout.
During the first day players were allowed to report to work and take physicals and conditioning tests following the lockout, coach John Harbaugh wore a wide grin Tuesday morning after not getting to be around his players for the past four months.
"You’re going to see a lot of smiles on everybody’s faces around this building and probably around the whole country," Harbaugh said. "Definitely in Baltimore, everybody’s excited about football. We got labor peace and we got breaking the heat wave."
There was also a lot of anticipation and excitement from players after not being able to come to work for the majority of the offseason.
"It’s like a breath of fresh air," running back Ray Rice said. "The feeling that you get by being back is just missing the guys that you go to battle with on Sundays, and you miss everybody that prepares you for battle. Now, it’s time to get back to work."
By late afternoon, after a lengthy meeting with general manager Ozzie Newsome, wide receiver Derrick Mason was still facing the harsh reality that he, running back Willis McGahee, nose guard Kelly Gregg and tight end Todd Heap will be cut from the roster in two days when NFL teams are allowed to release players. Parting with the veterans will save the Ravens $18.6 million and vastly improve their salary-cap situation.
The Ravens’ all-time leading receiver, Mason would prefer to rejoin the team even if it comes at a lower price than his current $4.5 million salary. However, the 37-year-old acknowledged that it might not work out as he had hoped.
"I’m not saying it’s completely over, but in a couple of days I’ll be a free agent," said Mason, who took an exit physical as did McGahee, Gregg and Heap. "The good part about it is I know I can still play football. That’s why I’m smiling, that’s why I’m happy. If they want me back, I’m back. Now, if some other teams want me that’s what you have to look at.
"My first thought would be to come back here. This has been my football home for the last six years. Why leave it so abruptly? I’m going to do what I can and hopefully they’ll do what they need to do to bring me back."
Harbaugh acknowledged the pending roster cuts, and he noted the Ravens won’t be alone in the need to get in compliance with the salary cap.
He predicted as many as 120 to 130 players would be cut, flooding the free agent market with up to 500 players.
"It’s probably a natural progression in this league and it’s tough, it’s hard," Harbaugh said. "It’s just the reality of the salary cap. It’s the situation we’re in right now. In going forward, we’ve got to make the best team we can.
"That’s not that we’re ruling anything out, either. I think in this climate, anything is possible. You may have an opportunity to bring some of those guys back. You may not. It just depends on how it shakes out the next couple of days."
A volatile, fluid free agent bazaar is expected to unfold.
The Ravens accomplished one of their goals by retaining offensive lineman Marshal Yanda, one of the top free agents at his position, with a five-year, $32 million contract. They would also like to keep one of their cornerbacks, probably Josh Wilson over Chris Carr, sign a new fullback with Le’Ron McClain expected to leave, a backup quarterback, perhaps Marc Bulger, and land a pass rusher. They might also need a veteran replacement at wide receiver. Malcom Floyd is one possibility.
"I think it’s going to be unpredictable," Harbaugh said. "I think you always have to look to make your team better.
There’s probably going to be an opportunity in terms of the market being flooded with players that has never happened in the history of the National Football League and probably won’t happen again the next 10 years. So we’ve got to do everything we can to take advantage of it and improve our team, and we’re going to need a little space to do that."
Having teammates leave the locker room, especially ones as experienced as Mason, Heap, McGahee and Gregg is having an impact on the players.
"It sucks if they don’t re-sign them,” cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. “I’m going to miss those guys, but fortunately they’re going to release them before free agency and you can add their neams to this free-agency bonanza that’s going on."
Rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith, the Ravens’ second-round draft pick from the University of Maryland, was looking forward to learning from Mason. Now, that might not be in the cards unless something gets worked out between Mason and team management for him to return at a lower salary.
"I was shocked, but he just let me know that it is a business," Smith said. "As soon as I was hearing the rumors, obviously my Twitter page was blowing up. People were like, ‘Derrick is gone!’ I called him up and he was like, ‘Yeah, it’s a business and hopefully something can happen where I can be there!’ I was really looking forward to learning from him and he was looking forward to coaching me up. We will see what happens."
A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Mason said he’s not bitter about his pending exit from the franchise that signed him six years ago when he was cut by the Tennessee Titans.
"Hey, it’s football, it happens," Mason said. "I understand the football side of it. If we can get something worked out, then great. I would love it. I would be the first person back here. My gut says I can still play football. Where? I don’t know. It might be in the backyard playing football with my son."
Reach staff writer Aaron Wilson at 410-857-7896 or [email protected].