OWINGS MILLS — Now that the Baltimore Ravens’ season is over following an AFC divisional playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, John Harbaugh is intent on maintaining the foundation of the roster.
Toward that goal, Harbaugh said that he has spoken with free safety Ed Reed and wide receiver Derrick Mason who have said they are contemplating retirement.
And he expects both players to return.
“Right now, I expect them both to be back,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll just have to see how that plays out. Ultimately, it will be up to them. I got the impression that they love football and they want to play.”
Reed is contending with a nerve impingement in his neck and shoulder that has hampered him for the past two seasons. Signed to a six-year, $44.4 million deal, he’s under contract through the 2012 season and is due a $6 million base salary next season.
“Ed knows we want him back, and I want him back,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a huge part of our defense. He’s a very important player, not just from a football ability standpoint but from a leadership standpoint on this team. He’s a premier player in the National Football League.”
Meanwhile, Mason‘s five-year, $20 million contract has expired and he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.
“We’ll see how it plays out over the next couple of months,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve told Derrick that we want him back. We want him on this football team, and we’re going to do everything we can to keep him on this football team next year.”
The Ravens’ goal of retaining the majority of their players is a reachable one.
Under the constraints of an uncapped year with the players’ union and the NFL management council unable to broker a new collective bargaining agreement, the Ravens aren’t slated for much activity in free agency beyond retaining their own players.
The rules dictate that “Final Eight” teams like the Ravens that made it to the divisional round are only allowed to sign an unrestricted free agent if they lose an unrestricted free agent.
As a playoff team, the Ravens can only sign one player with a salary of $4.925 million or higher and a number of players with a first-year salary of $3.2 million and an annual increase capped at 30 percent in subsequent years.
Besides Mason, the Ravens’ other unrestricted free agents are wide receivers Kelley Washington and David Tyree, defensive tackle Justin Bannan, defensive end Dwan Edwards and tight end L.J. Smith.
They have several restricted free agents, including: wide receivers Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams, offensive tackles Adam Terry and Tony Moll, cornerback Fabian Washington, offensive guards Chris Chester and Marshal Yanda, defensive end Dwan Edwards, tight end Quinn Sypniewski, kicker Billy Cundiff, punter Sam Koch, quarterback Troy Smith, fullback Le’Ron McClain, strong safety Dawan Landry, linebacker Antwan Barnes and offensive tackle Jared Gaither.
The Ravens can keep their restricted free agents by assigning them different levels of tenders, giving them the right to match any teams’ competing offer sheets.
“We want to hold all the good players together as much as we can,” Harbaugh said. “We’re not willing to let anybody walk out the door. The more guys we can keep here, then we can build on that and improve our team and get better.”
For the second consecutive year, the Ravens made it to the postseason.
That’s the second time in franchise history that has happened.
However, the Ravens were overmatched in a 20-3 loss to the Indianapolis Colts and fell one game short of the AFC title game after making it that far last year.
Despite the setback, Harbaugh was adamant that the Ravens are built to contend for a Super Bowl.
“I would say foundationally, fundamentally, culturally, yes, it should look the same, but better as we improve ourselves as coaches and improve our roster,” Harbaugh said.
As the players cleaned out their lockers Monday morning, several characterized the season as a disappointment since it fell short of the Super Bowl.
“Our guys expected to be playing this week, that’s a natural disappointment,” Harbaugh said. “But I want them to understand how well we played this year. I want them to understand the accomplishments of the last two years.
“I want them to understand what we’re building and where we’re going. That’s what I’m excited about.”
Even though an uncapped year is in the offing, the Ravens aren’t expected to spend an exorbitant amount of money.
General manager Ozzie Newsome doesn’t have a tendency of breaking the bank for free agents, relying on his axiom of “right player, right price.”
“I think Ozzie and I respect the budget,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not a salary cap, but there a certain spending framework that we want to stay within. That’s out of respect for the organization and really you’re not going to be able to just spend gobs of money and improve your football team all that much because free agents just aren’t going to be available.
“So, it would just be foolish. We’ll do what we have to do to keep our players in place as much as we can and then build our team as well as we can with respect for the budget.”
Among the positions the Ravens need to upgrade their roster: a big-play, imposing wide receiver, another pass rusher and depth in the secondary.
During Harbaugh’s two-year tenure, the Ravens have gone 23-14. That includes a 3-2 playoff mark with losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Colts.
“I really like the makeup of our team,” Harbaugh said. “I like the foundation we have, the kind of guys we have. I’m proud of what our team and coaches have accomplished over the last two years in terms of making the playoffs and giving ourselves a chance to win championships.
“That’s big. That’s something we intend to do. We want to build a team that can do that for a long time going forward.”