Franchise tag looms in Ray Rice's future

At their annual State of the Team news conference, the Ravens said they would prefer to sign running back Ray Rice to a new deal instead of putting the franchise tag on him. But Baltimore doesn't have a great history when it comes to signing players before free agency begins.

That's why the likely scenario is the Ravens using the tag on Rice to keep him off the free-agent market. Teams have between Feb. 20 and March 5 to apply the tag.

The Ravens have had no problems using the tag, doing so five times in the past nine seasons including three of the past four years. Baltimore tagged defensive tackle Haloti Ngata last year for $12.5 million. So, the Ravens would not blink to put the tag on Rice for an estimated $8 million.

“Ray is an unrestricted free agent, so obviously the franchise mechanism has to come into play,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said via the team's website.

This is a tough spot for the Ravens. Rice is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after he produced an NFL-best 2,068 total yards and set a team record with 15 touchdowns. He can make a strong argument for a contract comparable to the one signed by the Titans' Chris Johnson: a reported four-year, $53.5 million deal.

But the Ravens have two other contract issues: left guard Ben Grubbs is an unrestricted free agent and quarterback Joe Flacco is heading into the final year of his deal. The Ravens could put the tag on Rice to concentrate on these deals.

To Rice's credit, he has never threatened to hold out in training camp. He never made his contract an issue during the season.

And to the Ravens' credit, the team has always used the tag to keep the player and work out a long-term deal. It happened to the last last three players they used the tag on: Ngata, linebacker Terrell Suggs and cornerback Chris McAlister.

The franchise tag could be temporary for Rice.

“Obviously, I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere,” Ray Rice said after the season. “But it’s just one of those processes where you want to wait and see what happens and hopefully me and the Ravens come to a great long-term deal. That’s the goal. I see myself here. I’m a Raven.”