The Baltimore Ravens have a number of difficult decisions to make about their upcoming group of free agent players. There are some who are higher priority than others, like tight end Dennis Pitta, left tackle Eugene Monroe and linebacker Daryl Smith. However, one seemingly bit-part player, receiver and kick returner Jacoby Jones, should also be on that list.
The Ravens have around $11.5 million in salary cap space for 2014—$1.14 million that carries over from 2013 and an additional $10.35 million based on their current contracts for the year. While that's not much to work with, the Ravens must find a way to add cash to their cap space in order to retain Jones for at least another season.
|Ravens 2014 Salary Cap Situation|
|2014 Cap (Est.)||$123.6 Million|
|Ravens 2013 Carry-Over Cash||$1,138,094|
|Ravens 2014 Cash (Est.)||$10,359,716|
|Ravens 2014 Cap Space (Est.)||$11,497,810|
Jones signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract with the Ravens in 2011, and he had a $4.9 million payout for the 2013 season. In return, he rewarded his team with 67 receptions worth 861 yards and three touchdowns and, most importantly, 578 punt return yards and 2,059 kick return yards along with four total return touchdowns. He was also Baltimore's third-leading receiver in 2013.
Jones' presence on Baltimore's roster helped turn around a special teams unit that was languishing before it signed him. He also adds veteran skills to a very young receiving corps, despite not particularly having enough talent to be considered a No. 1 (or even No. 2) wideout.
This might mean Jones may have to make a few concessions in order to remain in Baltimore, but they are ones that would help both his career and the Ravens if he does so. A $4.9 million cap hit is certainly out of the question for such a specialist, with the Ravens having many other directions in which their money is being pulled. But a $2 million contract—a $1 million base salary with a $1 million signing bonus—could be affordable for the Ravens.
However, signing Jones along with their other high-priority free agents will require a bit of salary cap maneuvering. The Ravens don't restructure contracts, because it just pushes salary cap problems to the future rather than eliminating them altogether. In order to shave cash off the cap this year, they'll need to look at some of their more expensive players and try to extend their contracts. The prime candidate for this is linebacker Terrell Suggs.
On Suggs, the Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec notes his $12.4 million salary for 2014 could be reduced by a contract extension that spreads the money out in exchange for a degree of better job security. That is, of course, if he agrees to it. If not, Suggs is a candidate for release, despite leading the Ravens in sacks, with 10, and being their third-leading tackler in 2013.
Zrebiec also notes that fullback Vonta Leach could be a cap casualty in order to create enough space to sign the necessary free agents. Leach tested the free agent market in 2012 and ultimately wound up back in Baltimore on a reduced salary of $3.75 million for two years. However, he is owed $2.33 million of that in 2014, which doesn't line up with his 2013 performance.
|Jacoby Jones, Career & Ravens Stats|
|Tgts.||Rec.||Rec. Yds.||Rec. TDs||PRs||PR Yds.||PR TDs||KRs||KR Yds||KR TDs|
Owing to the overall ineffectiveness of the Ravens' run game, Leach went from 2012's best fullback according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) to next-to-last in 2013. Though the run game issues were barely Leach's fault, it's more than enough reason to cut him loose in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league like the NFL, especially after the Ravens clearly deemed him expendable last year.
In Jones' favor is his ties to new Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who was his head coach when he played for the Houston Texans from 2007 until 2011. Kubiak, per Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun, has nothing but high praise for his former receiver, saying,
I've got a great relationship with Jacoby. I don't want to say I was like a father figure to him, but he was like one of my children. We went through Jacoby's early career, where he was growing not only as a player, but as a man. I can tell you this: I'm so proud of him. I called him right after [Ravens] won the Super Bowl. I'm so proud of the man he's become, as well as the player. I look forward to seeing him.
That significant vote of confidence may mean the Ravens will be trying to find the cash to retain Jones' services for at least the 2014 season. He's clearly in the good graces of one of the more powerful members of Baltimore's coaching staff. The fact Kubiak chose the Ravens instead of waiting out for another head coaching job in the future also means he likely has some say in personnel decisions.
Pair that with head coach John Harbaugh's background in special teams and it's not hard to imagine Jones' worth in Baltimore is far higher than it would be on any other team in a similar salary cap situation.
A No. 3 wideout with kick- and punt-return skills are a dime a dozen in the NFL, yes. However, Jones brings to the table more than just that with the Ravens. He has an invaluable familiarity with Kubiak's offense. He's a true weapon as a kick and punt returner, not just someone thrown into the job because he's fast. And with the Ravens very hit-or-miss (and mostly miss) at identifying young receiving talent, he's worthy of taking the field with the starting offense.
The Ravens are cash-strapped presently and do have other impending free agents who are more important to the team's short- and long-term success. However, that doesn't mean Jones isn't worthy of a new contract, albeit one more in line with how he's used on both special teams and the offense.
He's a cornerstone of the team, though a very niche one. The Ravens should try to free up enough cash to give Jones a deal along with the likes of Pitta, Monroe and Smith.