The Baltimore Ravens will be making official a few major decisions next week when the new NFL league year begins, including what will come of free safety Ed Reed, the 11-year veteran who has missed only two Pro Bowls over the course of his career.
Right now, the Ravens are around $11 million under the $123 million salary cap (per russellstreetreport.com), but they also have 18 restricted and unrestricted free agents, some of whom they clearly would like to re-sign.
However, their limited cash means there's little chance they'll be able to extend offers to everyone they want.
What happens with Reed, therefore, will dictate what the Ravens can and cannot do with their remaining free agents. And because Reed would likely command a major chunk of that remaining $11 million, the Ravens might be better off letting him move on and sign elsewhere if he wants to continue playing in 2013.
Right now, Baltimore's biggest free-agent priority is linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who would take over Ray Lewis' inside linebacker job should he stay.
Ellerbe played 980 totals snaps through the Super Bowl at both right and left inside linebacker, notching 97 tackles, five sacks, seven quarterback hits and 13 hurries. He also had one interception and allowed a mere two touchdowns while performing coverage duties.
His value to the team could wind up costing the Ravens at least half of their remaining cap space for 2013, which means the team will have to be judicious with the use of tenders and contract offers to other free agents.
Tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are both restricted free agents. Pitta, in particular, has proven himself to be one of quarterback Joe Flacco's most important targets, having caught 75 of the 109 passes thrown his way for 832 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Though Dickson was less of a factor than Pitta in 2012—27 catches for 315 yards and no scores—he too is a priority this year. The Ravens would greatly prefer to keep both tight ends in the fold rather than just one.
The Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson expects Dickson and Pitta to each receive tender offers once league business begins next Tuesday; Pitta a second-round tender worth $2.023 million and Dickson an original-round tender worth $1.323 million. However, Wilson notes that if the money is there, the Ravens would likely prefer to give Pitta the first-round tender, which costs $2.879 million.
Assuming that Ellerbe costs the Ravens $5 million in 2013, Dickson gets the original-round tender and Pitta the second-round, that leaves the team with $2.65 million.
Considering that, in 2012, Reed made a combined $9.571 million in both salary and bonus, it doesn't look like enough cash is there to make him a worthwhile offer.
It's especially not enough money when one considers that deals for Ellerbe, Pitta and Dickson only represent a fraction of what the Ravens would like to do next Tuesday.
RFA defensive end Arthur Jones is also important to the team and could eat up much of that remaining $2 million with a second-round tender of his own.
Offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, who helped the offense immeasurably when the line was shifted prior to the start of the playoffs, is also a free agent, and while he's been inconsistent in the past, what he did leading up to the Super Bowl may drive the Ravens to find cash to pay him for 2013.
After signing just three of these players, the Ravens won't have a lot of cash left to pay their incoming rookie class, which means additional veteran cuts could come on Tuesday.
Barring that, a last-minute restructure with one of their more expensive players, like Haloti Ngata (cap hit of $11.5 million in 2013), or a pay cut for someone like Anquan Boldin, who is about to cost the Ravens $7.531 million in what is the final year of his contract, could be in store.
Basically, the free-agency decisions the Ravens will soon make all point to Reed being the odd man out. They could keep the legendary safety for another year or two, but it will cost them the ability to retain too many players.
Reed is important—a legend, in fact—but sometimes the finances don't line up with what's best for the team.
Ravens fans should brace themselves for the very real possibility that Reed suits up in another uniform this year, while also realizing what the team didn't give up by letting him go.