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Wednesday September 21st, 2011

Haloti Ngata has been one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the league since being drafted in 2006. (Jeff Moffett/Icon SMI)

The Ravens locked up Haloti Ngata Tuesday, just before the window closed on signing franchise tag players until after the season ends. And while Ngata is obviously a huge piece of Baltimore's puzzle going forward -- and he was paid like it, with a reported $40 million coming his way over the first two years of his new five-year, $61 million deal -- the signing also allows the Ravens to turn their attention elsewhere next summer.

Specifically, toward Ray Rice, who's in the final year of his rookie deal and set for a Sears Tower-sized raise over the $555,000 he's making this season.

So far, every indication has been that Rice wants to stay in Baltimore long-term, an outcome the Ravens no doubt desire. But Ngata's signing now means that the franchise tag is wide open as a fallback scenario for Baltimore, should an extended deal with Rice not come to fruition fast enough.

Had Baltimore not re-signed Ngata by 4 p.m. ET Tuesday, by league rule, he would have played out the 2011 season under the franchise tag at a rate of $12.5 million, then could have theoretically reached free agency in the offseason.

In the Ravens' worst-case scenario, they could have faced a choice between using the franchise tag on Ngata or Rice, while the other hit the open market. Baltimore will do whatever it can to sign Rice before slapping that tag on him after the 2011 season ends, but it should comfort the Ravens a bit to have that option in their back pocket.

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