The Baltimore Ravens are going to clear some salary cap space this offseason, this much is certain. A few of the prospective cuts are obvious: Kyle Arrington, Kendrick Lewis and Ben Watson will potentially provide $6.9 million in cap relief before the draft.
The Ravens have six borderline veteran contracts on their payroll, namely Elvis Dumervil, Mike Wallace, Dennis Pitta, Lardarius Webb, Shareece Wright and Jeremy Zuttah. The Ravens should wait until after the draft to make final decisions on most of these veterans.
The Ravens front office is unlikely to convince these players with borderline contracts to renegotiate or restructure their contracts in a team friendly manner because the team lacks much leverage. Over the Cap estimates total cap space of all 32 teams combined at roughly $1.2 billion for 2017 before teams make any cost cutting decisions or apply the franchise tag to their eligible free agents.
Top sports agencies have surely explained to the players they represent that many front offices have cash burning holes in their pockets. In the AFC North division, Cleveland has over $106.5 million, Cincinnati has $43.2 million and Pittsburgh has $36.8 million in salary cap space. Most of the expected AFC contenders possess cap space that dwarfs the Ravens as well. The Patriots have $61.1 million, Oakland has $40 million and the Broncos are sitting on almost $32 million in current cap space.
The Ravens currently have approximately $15.4 million in cap space before making any releases, tendering restricted free agents or deducting for incentive bonuses from 2016. Because Dennis Pitta recouped $3 million of the pay cut he took last offseason by reaching statistical performance incentives in 2016, and the Ravens are likely to tender most of their restricted free agents, their salary cap space will be cut down considerably when the 2017 league year begins on March 9th.
Negotiating leverage for the Ravens will increase after the draft, when most teams with excess salary cap space have signed some big names and satiated their fans. Post draft would be the best time to discuss a short contract extension with Mike Wallace since he would be more willing to agree to a reasonable salary for 2018 after the frenzied early market dries up. Wallace’s situation is nuanced since his contract is set up as a team option, but if the Ravens released him early on, any compensatory pick would likely be negated by a veteran signing the Ravens make to replace him.
Signs are pointing towards Brandon Williams and Rick Wagner playing in other cities next season. Therefore, the Ravens will need at least three starters before the 2017 NFL draft on April 27th. Releasing more starters such as Dumervil, Webb and Zuttah before the draft would entice the Ravens to address their positions during the draft. Before creating additional glaring positional holes, the Ravens should wait to see how the draft board falls and which positions they ultimately address in the early rounds .
Salary cap savings from post June releases is another valid consideration. Potential salary cap savings from releasing Dumervil, Wallace and Webb would be $6 million, $5.8 million and $5.5 million respectively, regardless of which point in the offseason the Ravens cut them loose. However, the structure of Pitta’s contract allows the team to defer a sizable portion of the dead money to 2018 if he is released after the draft, taking the potential cap savings from $3.3 million to $5.5 million.
The same is true for Wright and Zuttah. A post June release would increase Wright’s salary cap savings to $4 million from $2.7 million and Zuttah’s from $2.4 million to $3.5 million. Obviously the Ravens do not want to continue pushing their salary cap problems into the future, but a couple post June designations make sense this offseason considering the overall age of the roster and future coaching uncertainty.
If the Ravens combine their existing cap space with the obvious cuts, they have enough flexibility to sign a quality veteran starter or two before the draft. If they successfully target a couple difference making free agents in the early free agency period, wait until after the draft to acquire complimentary veterans and hold onto most of their players with borderline contracts until June, they can avoid reaching for positional need in the draft while utilizing their cap space most efficiently this offseason and maximizing their compensatory picks in 2018.
The benefit of being up against the maximum salary cap most years is that the Ravens front office has become skilled at manipulating the numbers. As always in Baltimore, patience is the key this offseason. Timing is everything.