The Baltimore Ravens took care of their most important offseason business on Friday, inking tight end Dennis Pitta to a five-year contract. The Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson confirms Pitta's deal is worth a total of $32 million.
Dennis Pitta's five-year contract is worth $32 million, according to a league source.— Aaron Wilson (@RavensInsider) February 28, 2014
Pitta is understandably happy to have reached a deal with the Ravens. Per Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com, Pitta said, "I could not be more excited to remain a Baltimore Raven."
Head coach John Harbaugh praised Pitta as well, per Mink:
Having Dennis as a part of the Ravens now and in the future is exciting news for us. Dennis has a large catch radius and can snatch the ball in traffic. Not only is he a reliable player, but he is an outstanding person as well. Having a weapon like Dennis makes everyone on our offense better.
Pitta's importance to Baltimore's offense was most evident by his 12-game absence in 2013. Pitta was set to be the centerpiece of the Ravens' passing game after emerging in 2012 as quarterback Joe Flacco's most favored target. However, a dislocated and fractured hip suffered in training camp held Pitta off the field and Flacco had one of the worst seasons of his career.
In 2012, Pitta caught 65.5 percent of the passes thrown his way for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. He also added 14 catches on 19 targets in the postseason and scored three of Flacco's 11 passing touchdowns during those four games. The performance was enough to convince the Ravens to trade away No. 2 wideout Anquan Boldin in the 2013 offseason, with the expectation that Pitta could fill the void.
Instead, the void became bigger with Pitta's injury. Still, it served as a warning to the Ravens—it was clear they needed Pitta in order to have any consistent success passing the ball. Though Pitta had only one receiving touchdown in his four games played in 2013, he caught 60.6 percent of the passes thrown his way.
Compare that to the next-most reliable receiver in Baltimore, Marlon Brown, who caught 60.4 percent of his targets, and it's clear how much the Ravens needed to lock down the impending unrestricted free agent to a new contract.
The contract is a big deal, because there was a chance that giving Pitta the franchise tag would have resulted in a battle between Pitta's camp and the league about whether he should be considered a wide receiver based on where he lined up for most of his offensive snaps. That would have been a leap of millions of dollars and, for the cash-strapped Ravens, could have forced them to make other hard decisions in order to pay Pitta.
This contract also became more affordable for the Ravens for two reasons: One, the release of fullback Vonta Leach and linebacker Jameel McClain on Thursday, which freed up $4.95 million in cap space. The other is the salary cap itself, which is expected to rise to $133 million this year, up from the expected $123.6 million.
Salary cap projected to rise to about $133 million this year, expected to break $140 million next year and $150 million by 2016, per source— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 28, 2014
The two releases and the higher cap gave the Ravens $26 million to work with, with 44 players under contract. That number made it far easier for the Ravens to give a deal to Pitta now, avoid the franchise tag and allow them the freedom to begin negotiations with other soon-to-be free agents like left tackle Eugene Monroe.
Re-signing Pitta won't single-handedly turn around a Ravens offense that ranked 29th in yards and 25th in points in 2013, but it certainly helps. Beyond Pitta, the Ravens still need a second tight end—Ed Dickson is also set to be a free agent—a true No. 2 wideout to pair with Torrey Smith and an improved run game which begins with the offensive line.
Without Pitta, all of these other issues seem even more pressing and more difficult to solve. Retaining Flacco's most reliable target was the most important first step in righting the offensive side of the ball. The Pitta question has been answered—he remains in Baltimore, Flacco has his top target for at least the next few seasons and it's a deal the Ravens can afford, especially with the surprise increase in the salary cap.
The Ravens can check off the biggest item on their offseason to-do list with the Pitta contract. Now, onto the next thing.