The Baltimore Ravens enter the offseason with plenty of roster holes to fill, but the toughest aspect of the rebuilding process will be squeezing every possible dollar out of the salary cap. While the front office is meeting to figure out its plan of action, let's do some digging ourselves and deduce how the Ravens should spend their money.
The Ravens aren’t in terrible shape compared to some other teams (like the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints), but Baltimore will have to make tough decisions when it comes to constructing the 2014 roster. Fan favorites may be on their way out, and Baltimore will have to be ruthless in making decisions that help the Ravens now and in the long term.
Before we get to the players (both acquisitions and releases), let's first take a look at the Ravens payroll for 2014.
|Ravens Salary Cap 2014|
|2014 Salary Cap||Rule of 51 Salary Cap Total||Rule of 51 Cap Space|
During the offseason when the roster size balloons to 90 men, the salary cap is calculated using the highest 51 cap numbers (per "the rule of 51"), so the cap total and remaining cap-room figures shown above are based on the Rule of 51.
With just under $10 million to spend, the first order of business for the front office will be to look at its own free agents and determine which players have to remain in purple and black. These are the Baltimore free agents for 2014:
|2014 Free Agents|
|Player||Free Agent Type|
|Brandon Stokley||Unrestricted (Retired)|
In that list, there are two key names: Eugene Monroe and Dennis Pitta.
General manager Ozzie Newsome is going to do everything in his power to get those two to stay in Baltimore, but as we saw last season, he has no qualms about letting his players find new teams if their asking price gets too high.
Head coach John Harbaugh has already gone on record saying how well Monroe played this year and that he wants him back if possible:
Given the fourth- and fifth-round draft picks that Baltimore traded for Monroe and the amount of time and effort that went into making the deal, re-signing Monroe will probably be priority No. 1 for the front office.
Given his talent and age (26), Monroe is sure to have plenty of suitors, so getting a deal that's under $8 million per year would be a big win for the Ravens.
A close runner-up for most important re-signing is Dennis Pitta, one of Joe Flacco's best friends and go-to targets. After spending $120 million to keep Flacco in town, you have to keep the franchise player happy, and these two signings would certainly do that. Pitta's market value is a little less clear than Monroe's.
His return from injury will certainly help his bargaining power, but he's a one-dimensional tight end who isn't particularly athletic. Ultimately, a deal worth around $5.5 million a year would be a fair price.
In addition, Arthur Jones is a player the Ravens would love to keep, but many (like Jeff Zrebiec of The Baltimore Sun) feel that his breakout 2013 campaign will lead to a big payday—with another team.
There likely won't be enough money to keep Jones and address other holes on the roster, so we may have seen the last of Arthur Jones in a Ravens jersey.
If Jones walks, the Ravens will have a much better chance of keeping Daryl Smith and/or Corey Graham. All signs point to those five players being the only free agents Baltimore has significant interest in keeping.
For those keeping track at home, that's already a lot of money and probably more than the Ravens can afford.
To make it all work, they'd have to create some more cap room. There are three major ways to accomplish that feat: release, restructure or extension.
Actually, make that two. Newsome has taken restructuring contracts off the table for this offseason:
In most instances, releasing a player creates dead money on the roster in the form of their guaranteed money and signing bonuses. For some, however, that dead money is significantly less than their overall salary and cap hit. Releasing such a player would create some dead money but ultimately create more cap room.
Here are some players to keep an eye on that would create significant cap room if they were to be released:
|Potential Cap Casualties|
|Player||Cap Hit||Cap Savings From Release|
Let's start with Vonta Leach. He was a cap casualty last summer, and it looks probable that he'll undergo that same fate again in 2014. The Ravens barely used him toward the end of the season, and with another fullback on the roster (Kyle Juszczyk), Leach may be more valuable to the Ravens if he's not on the books.
Then there's Sam Koch. Koch has been a tremendous punter for the Ravens for seven years, but a $2.8 million cap hit might be too much for a punter that can be replaced at a much cheaper cost.
Jameel McClain is another candidate for release, although his status will depend on whether the Ravens can keep Daryl Smith. Releasing all three of those players would free up an additional $6.5 million of cap room, which would go a long way to keeping Smith and Graham.
The last name on that list is a big one: Terrell Suggs.
It's a sad day when we have to think about Sizzle in another jersey, but that might be a reality next year. Baltimore would save almost $8 million by releasing Suggs, but would that really be worth it?
Possibly, but the more likely option is an extension. Signing Suggs to a more cap-friendly deal would allow him to end his career as a Raven on a contract that better reflects his production and helps his front office create a winning roster.
Don't think for one second, however, that Newsome is going to be sentimental about Suggs. If Suggs balks at the thought of taking a pay cut, he'll be on his way out of Baltimore.
Now that we've talked about how the Ravens can create more spending money, we can turn our attention to free agents of other teams that the Ravens may pursue.
They won't make any major free-agent signings, but they might make some moves to improve in critical areas.
At the end-of-year press conference with key members of the front office, Newsome listed three areas where Baltimore wants to make upgrades, as reported by Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com:
With regard to the offensive line, Newsome specifically said he wanted to get bigger in the interior of the line. While there are three interior linemen, he's only speaking about one of them: Gino Gradkowski.
It seems likely that Baltimore is going to try to acquire a bigger center to push Gradkowski and possibly take over as the starter.
Next up: a reliable wide receiver. This is something that Ravens fans have to excited about, but it probably won't come through free agency. For starters, there aren't many top-tier free-agent targets on the market at the receiver position. Secondly, most of them would be fairly expensive anyway.
Lastly, this year's draft is stocked with a deep receiver class, so adding a wideout via the draft would be the best path to take.
Finally, Newsome talked about adding a rangy free safety that would allow Matt Elam to play his natural strong safety position. Chris Clemons is the best free safety on the market, but he may be too expensive for Baltimore's tastes.
Another thing to consider is that Newsome doesn't like to go after unrestricted free agents because they affect Baltimore's ability to be awarded compensatory picks. He won't turn down a good player at a bargain price, but in all likelihood, most of the players Baltimore will add won't be unrestricted free agents—and some may be cap casualties of other teams.
And that brings us to the end of Baltimore's money and the end of this article. Most of the remaining upgrades will be made in the draft, but you can be sure that Newsome will make plenty of shrewd moves this summer.
As the saying goes in Baltimore: In Ozzie We Trust.
Note: This salary cap breakdown wouldn't be possible without the tremendous work of Brian McFarland over at Russell Street Report. Brian is a salary-cap guru, and he's definitely worth a Twitter follow for updates on the Ravens' salary cap situation: @RavensSalaryCap
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