The NFL giveth and the NFL taketh away.
Just over a month removed from the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl win, the team announced on Monday that they have traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers for a sixth-round draft pick.
The 49ers, whom the Ravens defeated in that Super Bowl, are coached by Jim Harbaugh, brother of Ravens head coach John Harbaugh.
This is on the heels of the Ravens apparently wanting Boldin to take a $2 million pay cut in an impasse that nearly had the team releasing Boldin on Friday—replete with Boldin drafting a "thank you and goodbye" statement. Boldin was set to make a $6 million base salary in 2013, the final year of his deal with the Ravens, and had a total salary cap cost of $7.531 million. So much for retiring a Raven if he was to be cut.
Boldin was a major factor in the Ravens' success in the 2012 season and in the playoffs in particular. He caught 65 of the 112 regular-season passes thrown his way for 921 yards and four touchdowns. In the postseason, Boldin pulled down 22 passes in 36 targets for 380 yards and four more scores.
Beyond his versatility on both the inside and the outside, Boldin is also a talented blocker and a physical presence on the football field, which more than makes up for his decreased speed. He was incredibly valuable to quarterback Joe Flacco this past year, and it will be hard to replace the impact he made on the offense.
So what do the Ravens do now? One option is to move second-year player Tandon Doss into Boldin's spot. However, Doss hasn't been particularly impressive in his time in Baltimore thus far, playing just 223 total snaps (per Pro Football Focus, subscription required) in 2012 and catching only seven of the 18 passes thrown to him for 123 yards and one touchdown. He'd have to make a major leap this offseason to successfully fill Boldin's shoes.
The Ravens could also simply increase the workload for tight end Dennis Pitta, who is presently a restricted free agent. Getting him a new deal—or at least giving him a tender offer—becomes a much higher priority with the Boldin trade, but now it's less difficult for the Ravens to do so with additional salary cap space freed up.
With more work for Pitta could come added playing time for fellow tight end (and restricted free agent) Ed Dickson. The Ravens could easily expand to a two-tight-end offensive threat in the mold of the New England Patriots.
Though Dickson played 153 fewer snaps than Pitta in 2012—848 for Pitta, versus 695 for Dickson—his catch percentage was similar, having brought down 27 of his 39 targets for a catch rate of 69.2 percent (Pitta had 109 targets, 75 receptions and a catch rate of 68.8 percent).
There's also a chance that the Boldin trade allows the Ravens to be more aggressive in free agency and find his replacement when the league year begins on Tuesday afternoon. Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun says that free agent receiver Danny Amendola could now be on the Ravens' radar, but it depends on what kind of money he's looking for.
According to Wilson, Amendola wants a deal similar to the one Miami Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline just got—five years, $30.775 million, with a $7 million signing bonus and $12.5 million guaranteed. With the Ravens just over $12 million under the salary cap and a number of restricted and unrestricted free agents not yet dealt with, that's a major chunk of change for someone with repeated injuries, despite how good of a fit he'd be.
Finally, there's the draft. While this isn't thought to be a rookie receiver class rife with instant stars, it doesn't lack for depth. The Ravens could find an affordable alternative to Boldin who could be ready to go in his first year, instead of being a developmental project like Doss or 2012 rookie free agent Deonte Thompson.
It was quite the gutsy move for the Ravens to no longer tolerate Boldin's unwillingness to take a pay cut in the final year of his contract and to trade him to the team they had just defeated in the Super Bowl. It does appear, at least initially, that this will come to harm the Ravens more than it would help them, but general manager Ozzie Newsome isn't known for his gambles to not pay off.
The NFL is a business first and foremost, and the Boldin trade only serves to further highlight that fact. Clearly, the Ravens have something in mind as an alternative and the confidence that it will work out for their offense as well as Boldin did in his time in Baltimore.
What that alternative is is not yet clear, but the Ravens have at least four options available immediately—Doss, Pitta and Dickson, Amendola and the draft—so the odds are that the Ravens didn't create a problem without a solution in shipping Anquan Boldin to San Francisco 49ers.