In the recent past, contending teams were able to supplement their rosters with bargain priced free agents who were released from their teams after the draft. The Baltimore Ravens have taken advantage of the post draft veteran market by signing players such as Bryant McKinnie, Bernard Pollard and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. However, this market has all but dried up lately.
Last offseason, 158 players were cut within the two weeks following the first round of the draft. Among them center Matt Slauson, corner Rashaan Melvin and kicker Connor Barth were the only players who were able to earn starting roles with new teams. The two weeks following the start of the 2015 draft saw 151 players released. Receiver James Jones was the only draft related cut to make an impact in 2015. Safety D.J. Swearinger latched on with the Cardinals but barely saw the field until last season, and Kyle Arrington has been a major disappointment for the Ravens since New England cut him loose.
Clearly, NFL teams are doing most of their roster housekeeping closer to the start of the new league year in March than after the draft. The vast majority of the players cut immediately after the draft ended up being little more than training camp fodder or outright retired. Franchises have become more likely to make decisions on aging veterans earlier in the offseason.
Treating former players honorably by providing them the best opportunity to find a good fit with a new team by utilizing the post-June release designation is part of the equation. Yet the economics of the league are a bigger reason for the change. By this point in the offseason, the bulk of the large contracts have been distributed. Even still, the current league median salary cap space is almost $19 million and the average current salary cap space of all 32 teams is more than $23 million.
Between the rapid inflation of the salary cap and the uptick in injuries, releasing veterans after the draft is simply not beneficial in most circumstances. This is especially true on the offensive line because of a league wide shortage of competent players. It also holds true at the running back, wide receiver, defensive line and linebacker positions where a deep rotation of players is preferable.
The Ravens front office has undoubtedly taken notice of the trend, as evidenced by their newfound aggressiveness early in free agency, even for complementary players such as Ben Watson and Danny Woodhead. Generally speaking, un-drafted rookie free agents have a better chance at contributing than veterans released in late April or May.
Surely a handful of notable players will be released around the draft this year. And the Ravens may be fortunate enough to find a starter or key backup from this group. But overall, the Ravens are better off waiting to see which unrestricted free agents are still available and match their needs after the draft, just as they did last offseason with guard Vlad Ducasse. Late August is another period where better players will become available as training camp performances lead to veteran cuts.
Ozzie Newsome clearly has an ambitious plan this offseason. He has not been content to sit tight and take whatever the market gives him. The front office knows the Ravens still need to upgrade the personnel on their roster at a few specific positions, and they will do their best to fill these holes in the draft and free agency.
Just don’t hold your breath on a bunch of high caliber offensive lineman or receivers hitting the market in May. Impact veteran releases after the draft are few and far between in the NFL these days.