The coming season is expected to be a transitional year for the Baltimore Ravens. Ozzie Newsome, the only general manager in franchise history, will pass the baton to assistant general manager Eric DeCosta in 2019. Furthermore, this pair selected Lamar Jackson in the first round of the 2018 draft to succeed longtime franchise quarterback Joe Flacco sometime in the near future. Inquiring minds want to know how the roster could change next offseason.
Naturally, any roster construction discussion begins by analyzing available salary cap space. Spotrac estimates the Ravens will have approximately $11 million in salary cap space for 2019 after Tony Jefferson’s recent contract restructure. This figure will be reduced by roughly $10 million once the 2018 and 2019 draft classes sign their rookie contracts. However, the baseline NFL salary cap has been rising by about $11 million each year. With all of this taken into account, an expectation that the Ravens will have $12 million in salary cap space before releasing or re-signing anyone is a reasonable guesstimate at this time.
The marquee player approaching unrestricted free agency is defensive captain C.J. Mosley. He will command a contract upwards of $10 million annually assuming he has a strong 2018 season, but the Ravens often backload their contract structures to keep initial cap hits low. A 2019 cap charge of $6 million is a fair estimate for Mosley’s expected new deal.
Franchise leader Terrell Suggs is also up for free agency in 2019. He is still performing at a high level and could garner a medium sized short term contract if he elects to continue playing. Receiver John Brown inked a 1-year, $5 million deal this offseason, his cost could rise with a bounce back year.
Rotational pass rusher Za’Darius Smith, blocking tight end Nick Boyle, injury prone defensive end Brent Urban and backup tailback Javorius Allen headline the list of fourteen second and third tier impending unrestricted free agents. Breakout running back Alex Collins, linebacker Patrick Onwuasor and nose tackle Michael Pierce will be restricted free agents in 2019. And center Matt Skura will almost certainly be retained as an exclusive rights free agent.
Combined, these homegrown free agents will consume most of the club’s current 2019 cap space if the front office decides to keep them in Baltimore. Fortunately, the Ravens have many costly veterans that could be released from their contracts to free up significantly more disposable salary cap space.
Beginning with Flacco, the Ravens can create $10.5 million of cap space if they move on from their franchise quarterback next offseason, albeit with $16 million of dead money attached. Releasing Jimmy Smith in 2019 would result in $9.5 million of newfound space, weighed against $6.7 million in dead cap. After his recent restructure, Tony Jefferson would provide only $3.9 million in savings compared to $8.8 million of dead cap space.
Releasing stalwart guard Marshal Yanda could create $7 million in cap room with $3.1 million of dead cap attached if he does not return for the final season of his contract in 2019. If newly signed receiver Michael Crabtree flops, his contract allows for $4.7 million in saving against an equal amount of dead money. Considering the $6.5 million savings versus $1.8 million dead cap charge, 2018 could be Eric Weddle’s last season with the team. Veteran corner Brandon Carr could also be released to open up $5 million in net cap relief compared to just $2 million of unusable space.
In summary, the Ravens can free up $47 million of salary cap space next offseason by cutting these seven players. That would push their total available cap space to approximately $59 million, with the annual projected league-wide salary cap jump factored in, before signing any homegrown or outside free agents. Of course, these potential maneuvers would coincide with ample downside. The team would be forced to replace their entire 2017 starting secondary, top receiver, best offensive lineman and battle tested quarterback.
Some teams have already extended the contracts of their most promising players before they reach free agency in 2019. The Ravens themselves should consider offering early extensions to potential foundational players Matt Judon and Ronnie Stanley in 2019. Nonetheless, there are still many intriguing players scheduled to become available next offseason.
Elite pass rushers Khalil Mack, Jadeveon Clowney and Demarcus Lawrence will demand exorbitant paydays. Several more defensive stars could reach the open market, including Geno Atkins, Ndamukong Suh, Ezekiel Ansah, Anthony Barr and Avery Williamson. As for defensive backs the Ravens could target to replace the starters they might release, safeties Earl Thomas, Lamarcus Joyner, Tyrann Mathieu, Landon Collins and HaHa Clinton-Dix, as well as cornerbacks Ronald Darby, Bradley Roby and E.J. Gaines are all approaching unrestricted free agency.
On the offensive side of the ball, All-Pro guard Zack Martin leads a rather underwhelming crop of impending free agent lineman. The two most desriable receivers will clearly be Odell Beckham and Brandin Cooks. Workhorse tailbacks Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson may also hit the market.
In conclusion, the Ravens certainly have avenues they could utilize to assemble the salary cap space they would need to add coveted free agents next offseason. However, releasing seven of the eight highest paid players on the team in one offseason would traditionally result in a more the flexible cap situation. Nearly a decade of manipulating the cap with backloaded deals and frequent contract restructures comes with the price of massive dead cap space. The Ravens could defer half of the dead money attached to each player by resorting to the post-June designation, but that would perpetuate the cycle of pushing their salary cap problems into future seasons.
The best way for the Baltimore Ravens to construct their next championship caliber roster remains developing the young talent already on the roster and drafting better than their competition.