OWINGS MILLS — Through a few executive signatures signifying a combined expenditure of almost $6.6 million, the Baltimore Ravens secured both of their starting cornerbacks heading into today’s launch of free agency.
There might not be too many more significant upcoming transactions for the reigning AFC North champions given their tradition of not making a big splash by engaging in a shopping spree on the most expensive football players.
More departures than arrivals are anticipated from the Ravens’ roster, including potentially losing Pro Bowl offensive guard Ben Grubbs and gritty veteran outside linebacker Jarret Johnson to other teams’ overtures.
The Ravens held onto both cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams by assigning them first-round and second-round restricted tenders, respectively.
They also assigned a second-round tender to backup inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. Running back Matt Lawrence wasn’t given a tender, making him an unrestricted free agent.
If another team signs Webb, Williams or Ellerbe to an offer sheet, the Ravens have the right to match. If they opted not to match in either case, they would receive a first-round draft pick for Webb and a second-round draft pick for Williams or Ellerbe as compensation.
Webb was given the highest possible tender of $2.742 million following a breakthrough campaign where he intercepted five passes during the regular season and three more during the playoffs to tie a franchise postseason record. He also recorded 68 tackles, a forced fumble, a sack and 20 deflected passes.
The Ravens have expressed interest in signing Webb to a long-term deal before he becomes an unrestricted free agent next year.
"I’m very blessed to get a first-round tender!" Webb wrote on his Twitter account. "I guess everything is up in the air now!"
Williams emerged as a reliable starter last season, starting every game and registering 77 tackles, 18 pass deflections and two forced fumbles.
The Ravens are interested in retaining inside linebacker Jameel McClain, and the feeling is mutual.
And Joe Linta, the agent for center Matt Birk, said Monday that he expects to learn soon if a deal can be worked out for the six-time Pro Bowl center with Baltimore or if he’s going to another team.
Former Ravens center Jason Brown was cut by the St. Louis Rams on Monday, and could be an intriguing alternative to Birk. He might be too expensive considering he left the Ravens for a $37.5 million contract that included $20 million in guaranteed money and made him the highest paid center in the game.
The Rams cut him rather pay him a $5 million base salary in 2012 as he carried a $7.2 million salary-cap figure.
The Ravens need to bolster the offensive line, wide receiver, running back and their pass rush.
"We already have a strategy in place that will allow us to have the ability to sign players that we want to sign," general manager Ozzie Newsome said at the NFL scouting combine. "We have a plan in place.”
However, the Ravens are expected to lose some key contributors s via free agency due to the higher offers they will draw from other NFL teams.
That includes Grubbs.
The Ravens have made what coach John Harbaugh termed a “substantial offer,” to Grubbs. Grubbs’ agent, Pat Dye, met with the Ravens at the NFL scouting combine, calling it a "positive meeting," and has continued to hold dialogue with team officials.
Dye has acknowledged, though, that the Ravens’ offense needs to be examined in comparison to what other teams might offer to the former Auburn standout who’s thought of as the team’s top all-around offensive lineman.
“Ben is a player that we’d love to have back in Baltimore,” Newsome said at the combine. “We’ve had some conversations with Pat Dye already. We will see how things work out between now and the beginning of free agency on March 13.”
Grubbs is expected to leave via free agency for bigger money elsewhere, barring a last-minute deal that’s not expected to transpire. The Ravens are unlikely to lock up Grubbs at this stage where he’s hours away from a potential contract in the $40 million range.
The Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Cleveland Browns are among the teams expected to show interest in the former first-round draft pick.
The Ravens already made a major investment at guard last August when they signed Pro Bowl blocker Marshal Yanda to a five-year, $32 million contract that included a $10 million signing bonus.
Grubbs’ five-year, $9.175 million rookie deal has expired, and he’s now expected to command an even more lucrative contract than Yanda.
Most NFL teams don’t traditionally pay both of their offensive guards at high market-value levels, or have two elite offensive guards for that matter.
“It gets a little complicated,” said Grubbs, who was paid $2.995 million last season after triggering an escalator clause in his contract. “I don’t want to say too much or too little. I was drafted by the Ravens. I’ve established a great foundation there, and I’ve got my boys there. Everything is good there.
“I have a lot of faith and trust that something good will happen no matter what, but I know it’s a business. People can be here one day and then gone tomorrow. Will a new chapter open up for me? I don’t know, but I have faith that everything will be all right.”
Meanwhile, Johnson is a popular fan favorite who would prefer to remain with the Ravens.
The Ravens have remained in touch with Johnson and have told him that they would like him back.
Still, his options with other teams are expected to be enticing.
Among the teams where Johnson has connections and already been linked to: a New York Jets squad coached by former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and the Indianapolis Colts run by new coach Chuck Pagano, who coached the Baltimore defense last season.
“I would like to retire as a Raven,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, something can be worked out. At the same time, I know it’s a business. We’ll see what happens.”
Johnson is one of the best run-stuffing linebackers in the NFL, but his production dipped a bit last season as he fell to 56 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks after 77 tackles and two forced fumbles the previous year, and career-high totals of six sacks and two interceptions three years ago.
He’s the top all-around free agent outside linebacker currently available.
“I had a conversation with Jarret at the end of the season and I told him I would maintain communication with him throughout the process,” Newsome said. “Jarret is a Raven. He plays like a Raven. We’d love to have him back if things can work itself out.”
Defensive end Cory Redding had a solid season last year with 4 1/2 sacks and could be in the Ravens’ plans provided his price remains similar to the $2.7 million he played for last season in the final year of his two-year contract.
A year ago, the Ravens signed fullback Vonta Leach, strong safety Bernard Pollard, offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, running back Ricky Williams and backup center Andre Gurode.
And they wound up cutting tight end Todd Heap, wide receiver Derrick Mason, nose guard Kelly Gregg and running back Willis McGahee and not re-signing fullback Le’Ron McClain, offensive guard Chris Chester, safety Dawan Landry, cornerback Josh Wilson and wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth.
The Ravens are accustomed to handling roster turnover with a few new additions while promoting from within their ranks with younger players. For instance, outside linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive end Pernell McPhee could have dramatically larger roles if Johnson and Redding don’t return.
Backup safeties Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski are not expected to return as they seek increased playing time elsewhere.
The Ravens’ other unrestricted free agents include linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, center Andre Gurode, linebacker Edgar Jones, defensive tackle Brandon McKinney and tight end Kris Wilson.
Nakamura is a possible addition for the Tennessee Titans or the Indianapolis Colts. Zbikowski could draw interest from his hometown Chicago Bears.
“I would love to be back with the Ravens, but I also want the opportunity to compete for more playing time,” Nakamura said. “It’s all about opportunity. It’s not necessarily all about money."