Could the Ravens Really Use the Franchise Tag on Dennis Pitta?

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 11, 2014

Dennis Pitta missed all but four games of the 2013 season with a hip injury. Now, he and the Ravens need to figure out what he's going to get paid in 2014 and beyond.
Dennis Pitta missed all but four games of the 2013 season with a hip injury. Now, he and the Ravens need to figure out what he's going to get paid in 2014 and beyond.Larry French/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens, like many teams, have difficult decisions ahead regarding their 2014 free agents. From linebacker Daryl Smith to safety James Ihedigbo, every one of their 20 impending free agents will be examined closely by the team's powers-that-be in order to determine who is of the highest priority and who can move on.

Among those free agents, none is more important to the Ravens than tight end Dennis Pitta. Pitta, who only returned in Week 13 this season from the fractured and dislocated hip he suffered in the summer, is quarterback Joe Flacco's preferred passing target and a huge part of the team's offensive plans. 

However, signing him to a new deal won't be easy. There's the fact that he's coming off such a serious injury. There's the matter of the salary cap to consider. And then there's the franchise tag, which could prove to be more expensive for the Ravens to give Pitta than initially thought.

What happens with Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's payday could greatly affect Pitta and the Ravens.
What happens with Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's payday could greatly affect Pitta and the Ravens.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Ravens project to have around $13.6 million in salary-cap space for 2014, according to Spotrac, who assumes a $126.3 million cap this year. While that's more cash to work with compared to some other teams around the league, it's still not much—not when there's the matter of paying Pitta and other free agents as well as their rookie class to consider. The Ravens will have to get creative.

One way seemingly around this would be to give Pitta the franchise tag for 2014 while working out the terms of a Pitta- and cap-friendly long-term deal. However, he may not seek the tight end tag, projected to be around $6.709 million this year.

No—according to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun, Pitta could try to be tagged as a wide receiver, which is $11.539 million this year, and he could easily win the argument too.

The rules of the franchise tag state that it "will apply to the position in which the player participated in the most plays." And for Pitta, that means receiver.

According to Wilson's tally, Pitta ran 79.7 percent of his routes in the slot in his four games played in 2013. He had 111 total snaps in the slot, six split out wide, six in the backfield and just 40 as a traditional tight end. That's down significantly from 46 percent of his snaps played next to the tackle (as a tight end) in 2012.

Whether or not Pitta would be eligible for the receiver tag depends on what happens with New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who is too an impending free agent. It is expected Graham will attempt to have his tag status reclassified to wide receiver if the Saints choose to tag him instead of sign him to a new deal. If this happens, a financial showdown could be looming between the Ravens and Pitta.

The Ravens, as Wilson notes, have been in this situation before with linebacker Terrell Suggs. In 2008, the Ravens and Suggs compromised on an $8.5 million franchise tag that fell between the $8.065 that would have been paid to linebackers and the $8.875 million for defensive ends, agreeing that he was a hybrid defender.

Top 2014 Tight End Cap Hits vs. Tight End and Receiver Tags
Heath MillerSteelers$9.47 Million
Tony GonzalezFalcons$8.75 Million
Jason WittenCowboys$8.41 Million
Marcedes LewisJaguars$8.25 Million
Greg OlsenPanthers$7.80 Million
Franchise TagTight End$6.71 Million
Franchise TagWide Receiver$11.54 Million

That could prove to be one option for the Ravens. However, the middle ground between the tight end and receiver tags for 2014 is $9.124 million. That's a lot of money—at this point only one tight end, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Heath Miller, would have a higher cap hit in 2014. And it would still limit the Ravens' spending on their other free agents, albeit not as much as if he was tagged as a receiver.

So the franchise tag might not be an option for the Ravens this year, unless Graham gets a contract from the Saints and Pitta's camp doesn't press for the higher wide receiver tender. And, for the long-term benefit of the team, a contract for Pitta looks to be the better move.

The question is, however, whether Pitta would also pursue wide receiver money with his new contract, should that also be his intent with the franchise tag. That could take a manageable 2014 cap hit of $7 million up to $10 million, based on what wide receiver cap charges are looking like for the year.

Pitta has been invaluable, even in his injury-shortened season. He's caught 122 of 187 career passes thrown his way—65.2 percent—for 1,244 yards and 11 touchdowns. Still, he's not the cornerstone of Baltimore's offense in the same way Graham is in New Orleans.

Dennis Pitta vs. Jimmy Graham, Career Stats
PlayerTgts.Rec.Rec. %Yds.TDs
(Both Pitta and Graham have been in the league the same amount of time.)

In the same number of seasons—albeit none cut down to four games because of injury—Graham has caught 301 of 471 passes thrown his way (63.9 percent), for 3,863 yards and 41 touchdowns. He's had two seasons with over 1,200 receiving yards and another for 982.

While Graham and Pitta may both line up as receivers more often than as traditional tight ends, Graham's numbers are more like something Calvin Johnson would produce. In certain key ways, Pitta and Graham are similar; in others, they are extremely different. This provides ammunition for the Ravens to not want to pay Pitta like a receiver, either with his contract or the franchise tag.

Ultimately, this minor franchise-tag controversy can be avoided altogether by simply negotiating a contract with Pitta. And Pitta could indeed be more open to a tight end-style contract only because of the relative job security that comes with it.

With costs beginning to add up in Baltimore, tagging Pitta in 2014, putting off a new deal to 2015, might find the Ravens with not enough cash to pay him. Granted Pitta stays healthy, he is poised to become of Graham-like importance to the Ravens offense this season. Thus, retaining him in 2015 could become exponentially more expensive than it is now.

Therefore, the franchise tag seems like an unnecessarily thorny path for both the Ravens and Pitta to walk down this year. From the receiver-versus-tight-end debate to the financial implications that could be wrought in 2015 by tagging him in 2014, there are too many reasons why the tag isn't the right choice.

It seems like the Ravens and Pitta should instead come together and agree to terms on a deal before they can even issue a tag on February 21. It would be the most mutually beneficial decision.