The veteran wideout, who made six receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown Baltimore’s Super Bowl XLVII victory over the 49ers, has been embroiled in contract renegotiations with the team almost since the final whistle sounded. He has a cap figure of $7.53 million, including a $6 million base salary, and the Ravens’ lack of wiggle room left them with a choice: get Boldin to take a pay cut or release him.
When faced with the prospect of being let go, Boldin appeared on NBC Sports Radio on February and insinuated he would retire if jettisoned.
"I won't play in another uniform," Boldin said (h/t ESPN). "We have a saying, once a Raven, always a Raven, and I'll always be a Raven."
Well, what a difference a month makes. Now, actually faced with an impending release before the new league year starts on March 12, Boldin has changed course and will reportedly test the free-agent market if cut, pre USA Today’s Jarrett Bell:
Boldin has rejected a Ravens proposal to reduce his salary, and is preparing to become an unrestricted free agent if released, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiations.
If the two sides cannot come to an agreement, it would end Boldin’s three-year tenure in Baltimore. But even for a 32-year-old who once threatened retirement, life in the NFL must go on. Where would Boldin head in the event that he’s cut? That remains to be seen, but the following teams are his best options.
Before the Lions do anything, they will have to get out of their cap nightmare first. The exorbitant cap figures of Matthew Stafford ($20.82 million) and Ndamukong Suh ($18.17 million) take up nearly a third of Detroit’s availability—an unsustainable number if the team hopes to improve whatsoever this offseason.
Extending Stafford—in large part to lower his cap number—has already been a top priority this offseason. It’s a move that makes sense from a financial and long-term perspective, as the team has no plans of jettisoning the 2007 No. 1 pick. Suh is a secondary priority at this juncture, but it’s very possible he gets a fancy new deal this summer as well.
In turn, it’s unlikely Detroit makes a big splash early in free agency. The room just isn’t there—at least until Detroit extends Stafford or sheds some more dead salary weight.
However, just because Boldin will test the market doesn’t mean he has to make a swift decision. And if Detroit ever pops up on the veteran’s radar, he may wind up seeing the Lions as a solid offensive fit.
Armed with the NFL’s best receiver, Detroit won’t be looking for Boldin to shoulder an overwhelming load. Calvin Johnson is a menace to defensive coordinators' nightmares—a player who continually busts through double and bracket coverage to make mind-numbing receptions. In other words, he’s the exact type of player who can mask any deficiencies an aging receiver like Boldin may have.
Meanwhile, the Lions get an asset they have desperately tried to fill: a reliable slot receiver. Boldin lined up in the slot 62.2 percent of the time last season for the Ravens, per Pro Football Focus, and was among the league’s most targeted players from the inside.
While he wasn’t ascendant by any stretch, he would be a far better option than any other current possibility. Titus Young, who was drafted for the slot, went mentally haywire and was released. And Ryan Broyles is currently rehabbing from his second ACL tear, so he’s not a Week 1 guarantee by any stretch.
If Boldin hangs on the market longer than expected, don’t be surprised to see the Lions make a play.
Whatever level of interest the Texans have in Boldin will be contingent on their overall offseason strategy. They have a clear need for a No. 2 receiver alongside Andre Johnson, but it’s an open-ended question upon where they get it. Making a high-cost splash in free agency is out of the question—they have less than $10 million to play with cap-wise, per Spotrac.
With that, it’s been speculated by many that Houston will make receiver its position of emphasis in the first round. Anywhere between three and five wideouts are projected with first-round grades, and at least one will likely be there when the Texans’ time comes up.
However, it’s questionable whether any of those players will be Day 1 contributors. Receiver is consistently one of the most difficult transitional positions from the college game, and none of the top prospects are even considered surefire future starters. With the Texans’ window to compete for a Super Bowl being right now, it’s possible that they can’t (and therefore won’t) have the patience to draft and develop a young target.
That’s where Boldin comes in as a possibility. The match isn’t perfect—the Texans would much prefer a deep threat to go alongside Johnson, who is slipping in that department—but Boldin’s contractual desires may be.
If Houston can sign him to a deal with a small cap figure (note: one with a sizable bonus), then Boldin may be the team’s best short-term option alongside Johnson. He’ll be able to position both in the slot, catch everything that’s thrown remotely in his direction and help out in run blocking.
Perhaps most importantly, bringing in Boldin would eliminate the need for Kevin Walter, who is due a $3.5 million base salary for 2013—a pricey figure considering his effectiveness has waned significantly the past couple seasons.
Financial respect seems to mean a lot for Boldin. While he obviously wanted to remain a Raven, the prospect of taking a pay cut after helping spur a Super Bowl run was simply something he was unwilling to consider. And as the steadfast-in-his-beliefs man he is, Boldin may wind up looking at the landscape and choosing whichever team gives him the financial respect he feels he deserves.
If that’s the case, Cleveland emerges as an exceedingly likely option. The Browns have an NFL-high $47.4 million in cap space, per USA Today’s Mike Garafolo, and an offense desperately in need of reliability. Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics placed Cleveland as the 27th overall offense and matched that placement in the passing game.
Quarterback Brandon Weeden represents the overarching crux of Cleveland’s offensive concerns. Seen largely as a panic pick, the 29-year-old Weeden’s performance as a rookie was either “growing pains” or dreadful—it depends on who you talk to. He finished as one of the league’s five worst quarterbacks regardless of metrics, which isn’t a great sign for a player nearing his 30th birthday.
That said, Cleveland didn’t exactly surround Weeden with the most reliable receiving corps. Josh Gordon was an emergent talent last season down the stretch as a deep threat, but he had an atrocious catch rate on downfield throws, per Pro Football Focus. And Gordon’s partner in crime, Greg Little, had the seventh-worst drop rate in the league.
Boldin doesn’t have reliability problems. At all. He’s arguably the most sure-handed receiver of his era, a guy who never gets enough credit for always holding on to catchable balls. Case in point: Boldin’s drop rate of 2.99 percent was better than any receiver targeted 100 or more times last season. And other than a strange case of the dropsies in 2011, he’s been inside the top 10 for the past half-decade.
With plenty of money to spare and a marked lack of reliability at the receiver spot, Cleveland should be on the phone from the moment Boldin hits the free-agent market. Will Boldin return the call? Maybe. But if he really wants to let Baltimore know it made a mistake, he’ll at least hear the franchise’s former home out.
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