As the Baltimore Ravens begin the defense of their Super Bowl championship, the team is faced with a number of tough decisions.
The Ravens have already cleared the first hurdle by getting quarterback Joe Flacco locked into a long-term contract.
Now the team has turned their attention to the defensive side of the ball, and it appears that Baltimore has decided to focus their attention on retaining one linebacker at the expense of another.
For his part, Ellerbe told Wilson that he hopes to remain in Baltimore, telling Wilson that “the Ravens are a perfect situation for me."
However, Ellerbe's agent didn't paint quite so rosy a picture, at least according to a tweet posted later Friday by Wilson.
Aaron Wilson @AaronWilson_NFL
Dannell Ellerbe's agent says he doesn't anticipate deal with Ravens before midnight: 'Starting Saturday, we'll be talking to all 32 teams.'3/8/2013, 8:05:36 PM
With that said, if the Ravens are as willing to offer Ellerbe a contract in the $25-30 million range as Wilson states, and if Ellerbe is as sincere in his desire to remain in Baltimore as he claims, then unless some team makes a "Godfather" offer, Ellerbe and the Ravens should be able to strike a deal.
Unfortunately, that deal will all but shut the door on outside linebacker Paul Kruger's time in Baltimore.
The 27-year-old Kruger, who led the team with 9.5 sacks in the regular season last year (and added 4.5 more in the playoffs), is also set to hit free agency, and Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports expects Kruger to receive a huge payday on the open market.
Jason Cole @JasonColeBR
I didn't believe this couple of weeks ago, but do now: LB/DE Paul Kruger looks like he's going to blow past $9m per, could get over $10m per3/2/2013, 5:32:28 PM
The Ravens simply can't afford to keep both, and the team has apparently decided that Ellerbe is their man.
That's the smart play.
That isn't meant to be any knock on Kruger. Kruger was the team's most effective pass rusher in 2012, grading out as the NFL's sixth-best 3-4 outside linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus, and he led all players at his position in Pro Football Focus' pass rush productivity rating.
However, even after Kruger's big year, he's far from a "slam dunk" signing. Kruger had more sacks last year than in every other season of his career combined, but only 1.5 of those sacks came during the six games that fellow outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was sidelined, leading some to question how Kruger would fare as a team's "primary" pass-rushing threat.
Add in that teams such as the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts, who have both tons of cap room and a desperate need for pass rush help, are expected to make serious overtures to Kruger, and the Ravens would be looking at a huge financial investment to keep Kruger in the fold.
Ellerbe's numbers aren't as impressive as Kruger's on their face, but the four-year veteran did rank a very respectable 14th among inside linebackers last year, according to PFF.
Besides, this decision isn't really about just comparing the two players, deciding one is "better" and re-signing him.
If only it were that simple.
First, there's the matter of the potential replacements that the team has for each player.
At outside linebacker, the Ravens will have a healthy Terrell Suggs back in the fold next year, a player who as recently as 2011 was the NFL defensive player of the year. They can pair Suggs with second-year pro and former All-American Courtney Upshaw, who the Ravens selected with their first pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
At inside linebacker, the Ravens have Jameel McClain, a five-year veteran returning from a serious neck injury, and a group of journeymen and special teamers.
As things stand right now, Ellerbe's loss would hurt the defense more than Kruger's
Then there are the financial considerations.
According to spotrac.com, the Ravens currently have about $12.5 million in cap space with which to sign free agents and rookies.
Yes, the team can (and probably will) generate a bit more wiggle room by the time all is said and done, but the fact is it's going to cost the Ravens significantly less to bring back Ellerbe than it would Kruger.
That in turn will afford the team additional flexibility with which they can try to sign other free agents, whether it's one from their own team such as offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, or one of the many players who will hit the open market next week.
In a perfect world, the Ravens would no doubt like to bring back both Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe. However, it isn't a perfect world, a decision had to be made, and general manager Ozzie Newsome is trying to do the best job he can of playing the hand he's been dealt.
Now they just have to get the Ellerbe deal done.