The Baltimore Ravens did not designate all-pro linebacker Adalius Thomas their franchise player by yesterday's deadline, significantly increasing the likelihood that his seven-year tenure with the team has ended.

Thomas could still return to the Ravens if the two sides agree on a new contract, but he will hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent on March 2 if a deal with Baltimore is not reached before then.

"Our hope is that we can re-sign him," General Manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement. "Our plan is to compete at a championship level in 2007 and beyond."

If Thomas, 29, becomes a free agent, he would be one of the most coveted players at any position in this year's free agent class. He earned a base salary of $1.465 million last season, but is expected to command a hefty multiyear contract, including a signing bonus of at least $12 million on the open market.

Baltimore, however, is only about $3 million under the salary cap next season and may not have the flexibility to compete with teams that have ample cap space, such as San Francisco and Cleveland.

The Ravens could create some cap space by cutting running back Jamal Lewis, who is scheduled to make $5 million in base salary next season and a $5 million roster bonus next month. But that might not be enough to re-sign Thomas along with other free agents and the upcoming rookie class.

If the Ravens succeed in re-signing Thomas, they would retain all 11 starters from last year's top-ranked defense that led the team to a 13-3 finish. They also would bring back four starting linebackers who were invited to the Pro Bowl this past season.

Thomas's versatility has been important in the team's 3-4 scheme. The Ravens' sixth-round draft pick in 2000 finished second on the team last season in sacks (11) and third in tackles (83) in 16 games.

-- Rich Campbell