OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- When the window for teams to start talking to free agents begins at noon Monday, the burning question in Baltimore might finally be answered: Will the Ravens pursue Le'Veon Bell?
Signing the NFL's most productive playmaker would represent the biggest free-agent splash in franchise history. It would also go down as the most uncharacteristic move in the team's existence.
The Ravens have built a reputation of not splurging on other teams' free agents. If Baltimore spends, it's typically on its own players (like Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Joe Flacco) or the ones cut for salary-cap reasons (and providing the most value).
Still, it's tantalizing to envision how explosive the Ravens' offense could become by pairing Bell's power and speed in the running and passing game with young quarterback Lamar Jackson's unique skill set. This AFC North defection would add another dramatic chapter to the Ravens-Steelers rivalry.
The New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders are the teams most frequently linked to Bell. The Ravens have been characterized as the wild-card team for the three-time Pro Bowl running back because it would go against their track record to give Bell $14 million to $15 million per year and $35 million in guarantees.
During the previous five offseasons, the only Ravens free agent to receive over $10 million per season and over $20 million guaranteed is nose tackle Brandon Williams when he re-signed with Baltimore in 2017. In that same span, Baltimore paid three free agents from other teams over $5 million per season and over $10 million in guaranteed money: safeties Tony Jefferson and Eric Weddle and wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
What makes this free-agency period so intriguing for the Ravens is they can go off-script this week. Baltimore has a new general manager in Eric DeCosta, and the Ravens have their most salary-cap room in recent memory.
DeCosta, who took over for Ozzie Newsome two months ago, stressed at the NFL combine that the team needs to build a strong supporting cast around Jackson. Baltimore hasn't had an All-Pro running back in his prime since parting ways with Ray Rice early in the 2014 season.
"We’ve got to add playmakers ... guys that can work with Lamar, take some of the burden off of Lamar and make plays in critical situations," DeCosta said last month. "That will always be a priority for us, I think, going forward and something we hope to do this year."
For Bell to end up in Baltimore, there would have to be mutual interest. The Ravens would presumably rank near the top of Bell's list of desired destinations because he can join the Steelers' biggest rival and also play his former team twice a year. Bell chose to sit out the 2018 season after the Steelers placed the franchise tag on him for a second straight year.
Several Ravens players, including safety Tony Jefferson and cornerback Marlon Humphrey, have reached out to recruit Bell on social media. The buzz regarding Baltimore and Bell increased at the combine after DeCosta mentioned that cornerback Tavon Young's contract extension was helped by his relationship with agent Adisa Bakari, who also represents Bell.
But DeCosta has talked about being more "financially responsible" with the salary cap going forward, and paying big bucks to a 27-year-old running back doesn't seem to fit that plan. The Ravens have other needs as well, from re-signing middle linebacker C.J. Mosley to replacing safety Eric Weddle to addressing wide receiver and the interior of the offensive line.
If the Ravens are interested in Bell, they have the cap space to do something about it, unlike previous seasons. In the past five offseasons, Baltimore entered free agency ranking among the 10 teams with the least amount of cap space. This year, the Ravens should have around $30 million in cap room, which should put them in the top half of the league.
One of the the Ravens' top needs is at running back. Baltimore returns only two running backs who carried the ball in 2018: Gus Edwards, an undrafted rookie last year, and Kenneth Dixon, who has struggled to stay on the field because of injuries and suspensions.
Bell's ability to weave through defenders in between the tackles and break a long play after a short pass would add a different dimension to the Ravens. He has averaged 129.0 scrimmage yards per game, the highest of any player with 60 career NFL games (even better than Jim Brown's 125.5-yard average).
In his first news conference after being promoted to Ravens offensive coordinator, Greg Roman didn't sound like a playcaller who anticipated the signing of a workhorse like Bell.
"As far as running backs nowadays, I do think you’ve got to have a stable of them," Roman said last month. "So however that unfolds, we could have a guy with one particular skill set. We could have the downhill guy. We like them all. We’ll fit them in."
So do the Ravens view Bell as a generational talent with fresh legs or an aging back who has 1,541 touches of wear and tear on his body?
The start of free agency this week will likely provide the response.