As the NFL prepares to crown the next Super Bowl champion, the Ravens are in full-swing in their preparations for the 2014 season. They have openly discussed the areas of the roster that need improvement whether it be through free agency or through the draft. In addition, they are preparing for the upcoming Senior Bowl, replacing the openings on the coaching staff, and are deep in preparations for draft.
While I am, by no means, a salary-cap guru or a stalwart talent evaluator, I am attempting to outline the important decisions that the Ravens need to make for the 2014 season. Like most decisions in life, these decisions will have a domino effect and there will be various unpredictable variables that may enter the fray as the offseason unfolds.
Below, I have broken the roster decisions into four major areas: possible superstar roster decisions (i.e. superstars in risk of being cut or restructured), current free agent decisions from the 2013 roster, possible cuts to save salary cap space, and free agent/draft priorities.
There has been a lot of talk about how there are six main players that comprise a large portion of the salary cap. Those players are Haloti Ngata, Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Lardarius Webb, Ray Rice, and Marshall Yanda. The kneejerk reaction from fans is that many of these players didn’t perform up to what their salary dictated, and therefore, the Ravens should cut them.
Understanding how the salary cap works is important in assessing whether or not a player gets cut. Again, I am no “capologist,” but I do understand that there are salary cap ramifications in cutting a player, known as dead money. In layman’s terms, dead money is the salary cap space a team must allocate to a particular player who has been cut. In other words, there is a price to be paid for when a player is cut. (For a deeper definition, read this article on the dead money leaders of 2013.)
In deciding whether or not a high-priced player should be cut, you have to assess if what is being saved salary cap-wise is worth more than what you would be losing as far as the talent of the player. That also includes how much the replacement player would cost against the cap.
Example: Player A costs $10 million against the cap, but would cost $7 million in dead money if cut. If you cut him, that means $3 million is saved against the cap. When signing Player A’s replacement, Player B costs the team $2 million. That means a total of $1 million was saved in cutting Player A. The team must assess if the overall savings, cap and talent, is worth the risk.
Below is a table of the Ravens players mentioned above, outlining the salary cap figures for 2014 and the dead money allocated in the event the player is cut.
Cutting Ngata, Webb, and/or Yanda would not save the team much in salary cap relief versus what they would be losing talent-wise. I don’t think that they would find a player that falls into the mantra, “80 percent the talent for 20 percent the value.” The club could approach Webb about restructuring his contract, but I only believe that that will be a last resort. The Ravens have been very reluctant about mortgaging the future, and that is the case when teams start restructuring contracts pushing dead money to the end of the life of the contract.
The only candidate on the above list that is in true danger of being cut is Suggs. The club would save $7.8 million. I agree with most others that the club will approach Suggs about restructuring his contract. Suggs should be careful about rolling the dice as he will not come anywhere near the $12.4 million on the open market, and the Ravens’ offer will probably be better than what he will find on the open market for a 31 year old linebacker who has 10 years in the league and who is coming off of a recent Achilles tendon rupture.
Unrestricted Free Agent Decisions
The Ravens have quite a few unrestricted free agents this offseason. However, I believe that there are only three priorities that are on the list. One major priority, one high valued priority, and one player that the team would love to have back at the right price.
Tight Dennis Pitta has to be the major unrestricted free agent (UFA) that the team needs to re-sign. His value to the team was felt greatly as he missed the first 12 games of the season. In his return, his production was not stellar (his three drops in four games equaled his total over the 2011 and 2012 seasons), but him stepping on the field at all this year was a bonus. Pitta is a true threat on third down and in the red zone, and his rapport with Flacco is currently unmatched on the team. The franchise tag is available for the team to use, but the franchise tag for a tight end will likely be in the $6 million neighborhood.
However, Pitta could challenge the fact that he was used more as a receiver than an in-line tight end. Pitta played the slot receiver position on 79.7 percent of his offensive snaps this year, and 64.6 percent of his offensive snaps in 2012. If this does become the case and Pitta were to win a possible grievance about his franchise designation position (like Suggs did in 2008), his franchise tag could be more in the $8 million range (a receiver tag in 2013 was $10.5 million). I look for the team to sign Pitta to a fair market deal that will be cap friendly in the early years. I think this is their first order of business in free agency.
Another UFA that will be on the team’s re-signing to-do list is left tackle Eugene Monroe. Monroe is not an upper echelon tackle, and he will not command an upper echelon contract. That being said, solid left tackles are hard to come by and Monroe is certainly a solid left tackle—Pro Football Focus had him as their eighth rated pass blocking tackle. The Ravens will make a serious push in re-signing him, but they will not get into a bidding war with another team if the price goes beyond what they are comfortable spending.
The last priority UFA is middle linebacker Daryl Smith. He, by far, was the biggest surprise on the defensive side of the ball this year. He brought leadership, stability, and continuity to an uncertain linebacker corps as the Ravens began life without Ray Lewis. Smith’s production may garner a nice contract, but he will be 32 years old this offseason. That may work in the Ravens’ favor as they look to re-sign him to provide leadership and depth to the linebackers.
Here is a quick look at the remaining UFAs and where I believe the team is headed with each of them.
Possible Roster Cuts
There are three players that should be a bit nervous of being cut as their salaries and cap savings would work into the Ravens’ favor.
Cutting Vonta Leach would save the team $1.75 million. The de-emphasis of the fullback position by the Ravens (Leach played in 41.3 percent of all offensive snaps in 2012 compared to 19.6 percent of all offensive snaps in 2013), the presence of Kyle Juszczyk, and Leach’s age may necessitate this move. In addition, the team could allocate these resources in adding another running back that could better diversify the overall backfield, a desire of the coaching staff and front office.
Jameel McClain is another player that is on the cusp of finding a new team for 2014. McClain made a valiant comeback this year, and he is a highly respected player in the locker room and throughout the organization. The unfortunate fact remains that football is also a business, and cutting McClain would save the team $3.2 million. There is a chance that both sides will again restructure his contract like they did at the beginning of this season, but it may make better business sense to cut him outright.
The final possible cap causality could be punter Sam Koch. Cutting Koch would save a total of $1.6 million. This is an example of the numbers possibly working in Koch’s favor as a replacement may not be cost effective. There were three rookie punters this season, and the average salary of the three was $434,000. By drafting and signing a rookie, the team would only save about $1 million. Koch has been a very steady performer, one of the best punters in the league, but his touchbacks, net average, and average return yards on punts had slight increases this year. Looking at the big picture if this position, is a rookie (or a more expensive veteran) going to be worth the risk?
Free Agent and Draft Priorities
The Ravens have been quite open about what they need to do to upgrade the roster: fix the offensive line (interior players and at least one starting tackle), find a wide receiver to compliment Torrey Smith, and find a safety that is more of a cover safety. In my opinion, the team needs to also invest in the defensive line and inside linebacker positions.
There are some development players that could help decide what the Ravens do in free agency and the draft. Guard/tackle Ricky Wagner and center Ryan Jensen could provide help (at least depth) along the offensive line. This is where offensive line coach Juan Castillo, and his reputation as a talent developer, could come into play. Castillo’s track record of developing prospects is definitely a reason as to why he was retained.
Another player that is often forgotten is defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore. An injury caused him to slide to the sixth-round of last year’s draft; otherwise, he would have been a higher draft pick. I am sure the Ravens are hoping that this may turn into a similar situation as Arthur Jones—an injured player that slides to them in the draft and then that player develops into the higher pick he would have been without the injury.
With free agents yet to be fully determined and franchise tags yet to be designated, it is hard to forecast what exactly the free agent situation is going to be. The Ravens will certainly follow suit as in years past by filling most of their needs in free agency. This strategy allows them to take the best available player in the draft. With many roster holes to fill, this may prove to be difficult. Luckily, this year’s draft is very deep in many of the Ravens’ areas of need.
The Ravens are faced with many decisions this offseason. They have set their goals high, as usual, and they have vowed to create, maintain, and develop a competitive roster. There will undoubtedly be good players who leave the organization, but there will certainly be an influx of new talent as well.
The 2013 offseason was remarkable because of the mass changes made to the Ravens’ roster, a Super Bowl-winning roster. This year, with new coaches, expiring contracts, and an underachieving offense, changes are expected again—and rightfully so. The hope is that this year’s changes will result in a better outcome than this year’s 8-8 non-playoff record.