The Baltimore Ravens celebrated their Super Bowl victory on Tuesday with a parade through downtown Baltimore, reveling in the fact that they have won their second Lombardi trophy in franchise history. However, all the joy they are feeling now could be short-lived once the reality of the offseason starts to set in.
Salary cap issues and other roster concerns could mean that the Ravens look like a very different team once the season begins. And the predicted $20 million per year payday headed Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's way has much to do with these potential changes.
Even if Flacco and the Ravens organization don't come to terms on a new deal in the coming weeks, the typical franchise tag won't be an option for him. Otherwise, teams can come calling on him and would be able to snap him up for a mere $14.6 million and a pair of first-round draft picks.
Instead, the only option for the Ravens would be to give him the exclusive tag, which would pay him the average of the five-highest quarterback salaries in 2013—a number projected to be around $20 million. Either way, Flacco is going to earn a big paycheck this season, which means the Ravens will need to do a bit of financial maneuvering to afford it.
The Ravens were projected to be around $13.2 million under the estimated $120.6 million 2013 salary cap before counting in linebacker Ray Lewis' retirement, which should save them an additional $4.35 million this year. That gives them around $17.5 million to work with at this time—again, not enough to pay Flacco's 2013 salary should he get that estimated $20 million per year.
Therefore, other impending Ravens free agents—including ones who were pivotal to their Super Bowl-winning season—may be casualties of Flacco's contract. Other players, ones whose contracts haven't yet expired, may also have to be released to accommodate Flacco, and other deals may need to be restructured.
Set to become unrestricted free agents this year are safety Ed Reed, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger, offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and cornerback Cary Williams. Center Matt Birk may also opt for retirement this year now that he's finally earned a Super Bowl ring after 15 years in the league, which would also be a huge blow.
With Lewis retiring, the Ravens need to keep either Ellerbe or Kruger—with the versatile Ellerbe being the higher priority despite Kruger's pass rush skills leading the team in sacks in 2012.
After Joe Flacco, who is the Ravens' most important impending free agent?
Williams may be expendable—Lardarius Webb will return in 2013 after tearing his ACL in the fall, Jimmy Smith's development is still ongoing and Corey Graham certainly proved himself more than just a special teams contributor this season—but it would, at the very least, affect their depth in the secondary.
McKinnie, too, appears to be expendable, but considering how well he performed in the playoffs at left tackle after spending the regular season as a piecemeal contributor, the Ravens may try to find some cash to hold him. After all, the thought of moving Michael Oher back to the left isn't a pleasant one—especially once Flacco becomes an expensive investment.
Losing Reed seems to be an inevitability. Though he won't be able to command another seven-year, $40 million deal like the one he's coming off of, he still should be able to contribute on the field for at least one more season. The Ravens won't likely be able to afford that, however, and he'll likely close out his career with another team.
Though Reed isn't the safety he once was, the fact that the Ravens are about to lose him on the heels of Lewis' retirement means there will be a leadership void in the defense that will be extremely difficult to fill. Reed and Lewis have been the figureheads of Baltimore's defense for very good reasons and served as the glue to hold that side of the ball together even when their skills declined.
Even if Sean Considine or Omar Brown can play well enough to make the transition that much smoother, it's not as likely either will command the kind of respect Reed did from teammates and opposing offenses.
Not having Reed and Lewis is enough of a change for the Ravens—especially psychologically—but losing Kruger, Ellerbe, McKinnie and Williams will do a lot to reshape the nature of both Baltimore's offense and defense in 2013.
Ellerbe is clearly the biggest priority after Flacco—he took over for Lewis while he was out with his triceps tear and became one of the team's best defenders in 2012, leading the way with 24 total quarterback pressures and 47 defensive stops and coming in second on the team in total tackles. He was signed to a one-year deal in 2012 worth just $1.927 million, but there's no way his services will come at such a discount this year.
He'll need to be paid more—Jameel McClain's three-year, $10.5 million deal sounds like a good jumping-off point. And if that deal is structured like McClain's, with a cap hit of just $1.9 million in the first year that jumps to over $4 million in each of the last two years, it might be doable for the Ravens.
But that will also come at a price, beyond not tendering deals to soon-to-be free agents. Other contracted players will also need to be released or restructured in order to pay just Ellerbe and Flacco. One of those may very well be wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who has been invaluable to the Ravens offense and Flacco's development since joining the team in 2010.
ESPN's Adam Schefter was the first to broach the topic of Boldin's potential release last week (it should be noted that Schefter also says that the Ravens project to be $5 million over the cap even before Flacco's contract, which contradicts the Baltimore Sun's estimates). Boldin has one year left on his four-year, $28 million deal, which will cost the Ravens just over $7.5 million in salary and bonus in 2013.
Without Boldin, the Ravens passing offense could be in trouble just as Flacco gets the front office's greatest vote of confidence. Not having Boldin means that Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson or LaQuan Williams will need to make serious strides in the offseason or that the Ravens will need to make a can't-miss wide receiver pickup in this April's draft. Boldin's departure will also cost the team veteran leadership—something that the otherwise quite young receiving corps still needs.
Other restructures shouldn't be too difficult. Terrell Suggs' 2013 payday of $13.02 million ($6.4 base, $2.02 signing bonus, $4.6 million in other bonuses) can be reworked, for example. Solutions need to be found, because otherwise the attrition on the Ravens' roster will be staggering.
The last thing a Super Bowl-winning team wants to do is have to dismantle what made it a winner in the first place. Flacco's contract situation combined with their salary cap issues means the Ravens' hands are tied in many respects. It doesn't necessarily mean that if Flacco gets paid, then Reed, Ellerbe, Kruger, McKinnie, Williams, Birk and Boldin—and perhaps others—are certain to not return, but their futures in Baltimore are certainly up for consideration.
Every team goes through offseason roster changes, and the Ravens are no strangers to them—they lost a number of important players prior to the start of the 2012 season, for example, and ended the year no worse for wear because of it. But now the axe may fall on the heads of those who helped build their Super Bowl success, making the Ravens' future a bit hazier than it would have been had they more money to work with.
When the Super Bowl champion Ravens hit the field in September, it may be a very different-looking team than the one that hoisted the Lombardi just seven months earlier.