Baltimore general manager Eric DeCosta enters the 2021 offseason in an unenviable situation. The Ravens roster has three equally critical positional needs - receiver, outside linebacker and offensive line. Addressing each is necessary to construct a complete contender before Baltimore’s generational 2018 draft class graduates to market value contracts in 2022.
At edge rusher, the cupboard is almost bare, all five outside linebackers who saw action in the postseason are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Receiver has remained a problem area since drops contributed to the 2019 postseason loss against Tennessee. And upgrading an offensive line that underwhelmed in the playoffs for three consecutive seasons was considered an important need even before Orlando Brown Jr. voiced his strong desire to line up at left tackle.
DeCosta has several developmental young players already on the depth chart. Ben Powers, Tyre Phillips, Ben Bredeson and Tristan Colon-Castillo on the offensive line, Devin Duvernay and James Proche at receiver and Jaylon Ferguson at outside linebacker. The front office also has draft capital at their disposal. Nonetheless, the aim at this point of the NFL calendar is to plug roster holes with veterans so DeCosta does not have to make the hard draft day choice between selecting the best players available or risk leaving the draft with glaring roster holes at needy premium positions.
In terms of salary cap space, the Ravens $18 million projection from Over the Cap has them well positioned in the AFC. Four of the seven 2020 playoff contenders, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Buffalo, are currently over the projected $180.5 million salary cap. Cleveland sits just above Baltimore with $20 million in space while Indianapolis is flush with almost $44 million after their trade for Carson Wentz. $18 million, while not impressive under normal circumstances, should provide enough flexibility for DeCosta to ink a stabilizing veteran at each of the primary positions of need with a moderate level of contract manipulation.
Offseason roster building is always a puzzle. With nearly half the league scrambling to shed contracts in order to create operational salary cap space due to the coronavirus induced cap contraction, crafty general managers could take advantage. Trading is one logical avenue to explore.
The cost of trades is usually draft compensation. The benefit is that the signing bonus portion of every player’s cap charge remains with the team who signed the player, potentially allowing considerable discounts compared to their value on the open market. Furthermore, acquisition of a player via trade does not impact the compensatory draft pick formula, possibly allowing the team that trades for the player to offset that cost with future compensatory pick value.
Shopping for cap casualties is perhaps even more beneficial. Players released from their contracts also do not factor into the compensatory pick equation. Salary cap contraction is expected to squeeze mid tier veterans during this unusual offseason, likely rewarding general managers who focus on this portion of the market with valuable contributors at discounted prices.
After perusing the team payrolls available at Over the Cap, it becomes clear that offensive line is the unit where many teams can shed salary without incurring crippling dead money charges that negate salary savings.
Of course, trades and cap casualty signings are not the only paths to fix the offensive line before the draft. The list of unrestricted free agents includes several top tier blockers such as Trent Williams, Brandon Scherff, Joe Thuney and Corey Linsley. But as the Ravens themselves have witnessed during previous offseasons with Ricky Wagner, Kelechi Osemele and Ryan Jensen, coveted offensive linemen often fetch a premium on the open market.
Offensive line trade targets:
Philadelphia is expected to be nearly $43 million over the cap after absorbing almost $34 million in dead money from Wentz’s contract. The Eagles have negotiated a complicated contract with their 34-year-old center that contains a $7.5 million option for the 2021 season and three bonus proration void years afterwards. In short, the former three time All-Pro Kelce would be a relatively affordable stopgap if traded.
This nine-year pro received a contract extension last offseason that will pay him $6.3 million in salary in 2021. The Titans reliable center is valued at over $10 million per season but Tennessee may be forced to go beyond Malcolm Butler’s release if they hope to retain Corey Davis or bolster their lackluster defense in free agency.
Ramczyk is one of the best young tackles in the NFL, yet following several years of ‘All-In’ decision making, New Orleans finds themselves nearly $70 million over the cap. After exercising the fifth year option on his rookie contract, Ramczyk is set to earn more than $11 million in 2021. If DeCosta is willing to part with the significant resources it will require to land Ramczyk, the Ravens could presumably give a more talented blocker who is content to play on the right side the cornerstone contract they budgeted for Orlando Brown Jr.
Potential cap casualty offensive linemen:
The rebuilding Texans could create $8 million in net cap space by releasing their steady center. The 28-year-old Martin has two years remaining on his contract at an average annual salary of $7.5 million, plus burdensome $250,000 per game bonuses. Despite their considerable roster deficiencies, Houston retains less than $7 million of cap space.
The Chiefs 32-year-old right tackle was a first team All-Pro in 2018 and rock solid in 2019 before missing 10 games due to injury last season. With one season remaining at a $5.9 million base salary before substantial game and workout bonuses, Schwartz could be released. Kansas City does not have any essential unrestricted free agents this offseason but they do need to clear some space to make room for Patrick Mahomes’ salary increase.
Ravens are quite familiar with this tone setting center. Jensen is entering the final year of his contract at 30-years-old and carries a $10 million salary with no signing bonus proration. The Super Bowl champ is a likely cap casualty candidate since the Buccaneers hope to keep unrestricted free agents Chris Godwin, Lavonte David and Shaquil Barrett while remaining in cap compliance.