Ravens officials watched, occasionally with jaws dropped, as Ray Rice danced and darted around opposing defenders in his first four NFL seasons. Now the time has come for the Ravens to wrap up Rice and make sure that the diminutive running back remains one of the focal points of their offense going forward.
Monday marks the first day teams are allowed to place the franchise tag on one of their own unrestricted free agents, meaning that the Ravens are officially on the clock in their effort to sign Rice to a contract extension.
The Ravens are expected to have some contact with Rice's agent, Todd France, at this week's NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis to at least discuss the parameters of a new contract for the two-time Pro Bowl running back. If an agreement isn't reached by the March 5 deadline for teams to apply the franchise tag — and it would be somewhat surprising if there was a deal in place by then given the expected amount of money involved — the Ravens have indicated that they will use the tag to keep Rice under contract for 2012.
Without a new deal, Rice will make approximately $7.7 million next season, the projected franchise salary number for running backs. That would represent a significant raise for the running back, though the hope for both parties is that a long-term extension can be hammered out.
"I don't think I'll be going anywhere," Rice said in December. "That I can almost assure. ... I love it here."
For Rice, an extension would give him long-term security with an organization that the 25-year-old has repeatedly said that he doesn't want to leave. For the Ravens, it would allow them more salary cap flexibility to sign players and retain some of their own free agents, which include Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs and linebackers Jarret Johnson and Jameel McClain.
While working out a deal has been a stated organizational priority this offseason, there has been no indication that the Ravens have made any progress in contract talks. The Ravens adhere to a policy of not discussing contract negotiations, while France hasn't returned phone calls from The Baltimore Sun.
However, along with scouting potential draft picks in April, the combine presents teams with an opportunity to meet with agents ahead of the March 13 start of free agency and the official NFL year.
At the combine, the Ravens will also start discussing a contract extension for Joe Flacco, who is entering the final season of his five-year rookie contract, with the quarterback's agent, Joe Linta. Linta told The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday that he doesn't expect talks to become contentious.
The Ravens don't want Flacco to have to play out the final year of his deal. Rice's situation, however, is more pressing because he'll officially become an unrestricted free agent on March 13.
At the very least, the franchise tag would buy the Ravens some more time to work out an extension with Rice before the start of the 2012 season. Even if he is tagged, the Ravens would still have until July 16 to agree on an extension before Rice's salary is set for the 2012 season.
"Ray is an unrestricted free agent, and obviously the franchise [tag] has to come into play," Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said at the team's season-review news conference on Feb. 1. "With Joe, it doesn't. We're just going to sit down and start grinding out the contract terms."
Rice rushed for 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2011 — both career highs. He finished second in the NFL in rushing behind Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars and his 2,068 yards from scrimmage led the NFL. His 76 receptions in the regular season were tops on the Ravens.
The Ravens have used the franchise tag six times in their history, most recently on defensive tackle Haloti Ngata last February. Two weeks into the 2011 season, the Ravens inked Ngata to a five-year, $61 million deal. The Ravens in the past have also used the tag as a precursor to lucrative contracts for Terrell Suggs (in 2008 and 2009) and cornerback Chris McAlister (2003 and 2004).
Rice, widely regarded as one of the NFL's top all-purpose offensive players, is hardly the only standout running back in this position. The Chicago Bears' Matt Forte and the Houston Texans' Arian Foster are also candidates to get the franchise tag by their respective teams.
Rice's contract demands are unclear, but two of the NFL's other top running backs were handed big contracts by their teams in 2011.
Last September, Adrian Peterson signed a seven-year, $100 million contract extension with $36 million in guaranteed money with the Minnesota Vikings, and Chris Johnson and the Tennessee Titans agreed to a reported four-year, $53 million extension with $30 million guaranteed.
Each player offers a cautionary tale for Rice, though, as he considers his course of action.
Like Rice, Peterson was set to become a free agent this offseason before his extension made him the NFL's highest-paid running back. Three months later, in December, he tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee, an injury that could sideline him for the start of the 2012 regular season.
Would Rice be willing to risk long-term injury while playing out the year on a franchise tender?
Meanwhile, Johnson skipped training camp last summer as leverage to get a new contract. He got it, but he struggled in the first half of 2011 and had the worst statistical season of his career.
It's unclear if Rice would consider a holdout if he didn't get his new deal before training camp.
"Ray and Joe Flacco will be part of this football team next year, guaranteed," Bisciotti said.
The question — one the Ravens might not be in a rush to answer — is under what terms?