Since emerging victorious from Super Bowl XLVII, the Baltimore Ravens have chosen a ‘contend every season’ model. Their regular season results have been been impressive, winning 57-percent of games along with four division titles. However, their postseason results have been lackluster, just two playoff wins and zero conference championship appearances over the last nine seasons.
The venerated ‘Ravens Way’ is predicated on sustainability, floor raising strategies permeate the organizational philosophy. Baltimore’s front office takes a long-term view when constructing rosters. They emphasize ‘Best Player Available’ over immediate need in the draft, prioritize ‘red star’ culture fit prospects, organize their free agent shopping around preserving compensatory draft picks and often sign aging third contract veterans to bargain deals.
These practices, along with a salary cap composition that places tremendous value on depth, has been successful. The meaningless preseason winning streak and meaningful ability to stay competitive down the stretch in 2021 despite extreme injury depletion are examples of the floor raising sustainability model working. Head Coach John Harbaugh’s locker room culture, coupled with the front office’s ability to build deep rosters through Day 3 draft capital and undrafted free agent identification have allowed the Ravens to stay relevant season after season.
Nonetheless, raising the floor of a team can have the unindented consequence of lowering the ceiling. Re-signing role players such as Brandon Williams, Tavon Young and Nick Boyle made it difficult to fit difference makers such as Za’Darius Smith and Matthew Judon under the cap. Paying stopgaps such as Alejandro Villanueva eventually chip away at the cap space available for playmakers such as Marcus Peters. The proverbial pie can be sliced many different ways.
Over the Cap published a roster texture analysis that examined how teams allocate their cap by organizing contracts into elite, high, middle, low and rookie categories. Baltimore ranked tied for 21st most in elite contracts, 6th in high value contracts, 18th in middle tier contracts, and spent the 5th most on low value contracts in 2021. They devoted 34-percent of their salary cap on elite and high value contracts versus 44-percent on middle and low value contracts. By comparison, the eight teams playing in the divisional round of the playoffs this season spent 42-percent of their salary cap on elite and high end contracts versus 38-percent on middle and low end contracts.
As Robert Mays and Nate Tice inferred on The Athletic Football Show podcast after the wild card round, playoff games are usually won by the teams who assemble the most premium position talent. Role players and depth pieces are put into position to succeed because of the mismatches and splash plays that stars create. Most of the contenders remaining in the postseason have constructed top-heavy, star laden rosters.
The Rams, Chiefs, Bills and Titans have traded away significant draft capital for playmakers. The 49ers, Packers, Buccaneers, Chiefs, Titans and even Bengals have signed non-homegrown free agents to lucrative long-term contracts. Many of these additions were financed by borrowing cap space from future seasons. The Ravens are currently projected to have only the 11th most cap space this offseason, which is still more than five of the eight remaining playoff combatants. Win-now moves have helped these teams win now.
Proponents of the long-term sustainability model are fearful of a sharp decline down the road if General Manager Eric DeCosta is too aggressive in the draft or with the cap in the short-term. That is certainly a risk, yet perhaps a bit overstated. This time last year the New Orleans Saints were thought to be in ‘cap hell’ but managed to win nine games this season despite two of their three highest paid players missing the majority of the year due to injury. The Ravens themselves rebounded from a dramatic salary cap purge in 2002 to win the division in 2003.
Borrowing from future caps using dangerous cap manipulations, including contracts with void years, could certainly catch up with the Saints, Buccaneers and Chiefs. However, with the cap expected to balloon to $260 million in 2024, teams that build around a strong foundation of premium position stars with fruitful draft classes and cheap role players can overcome aggressive ‘all-in’ periods rather quickly.
This offseason, the Ravens might be well served to pivot to a strategy more targeted on the short-term. The roster is poised to undergo considerable change with many free agents expected to depart and positions in flux. Still, they are in decent shape if Ronnie Stanley can return to form. Bluechippers Marlon Humphrey and Mark Andrews are locked up long-term, Odafe Oweh and Rashod Bateman flashed game-changing ability and Lamar Jackson remains a force multiplier.
Their main offseason priorities are limited to three - bolster the pass protection, acquire an interior pass rusher and add another ballhawk to the secondary. DeCosta essentially has three starting positional needs to address - a nimble offensive tackle, a disruptive defensive tackle and a rangy free safety.
With two draft picks in the top-45 and 10 overall selections, plus enough salary cap flexibility to ink one more ‘high-value’ contract, the front office can fill all three main needs if they are willing to make a few sacrifices elsewhere. Perhaps that means trading up in the draft and sacrificing a bit of depth. Maybe DeCosta would have to pass on an athletic inside linebacker, workhorse tailback, burly offensive guard or intriguing wideout prospect in order to land an offensive tackle due to positional scarcity. Baltimore might have to reach for a penetrating defensive tackle in the draft because other teams also covet rare skillsets. And filling all three needs could possibly require the Ravens to sacrifice a handful of low cost depth and special teams veterans in order to sign a proven free safety without irresponsibly burdening future salary caps.
Former General Manager Ozzie Newsome learned many of the lessons that have become ingrained as the ‘Ravens Way’ from Bill Belichick in Cleveland. Prudent free agent signings, value based drafting, depth focused roster construction, stopping and establishing the run, and especially sustainability have served the organization well for many years. But the league has changed and the Ravens Way has not produced the desired results in the postseason lately.
Aggressive general managers unafraid to part with future assets to cycle through ‘all-in’ spurts and an AFC loaded with prime age All-Pro caliber quarterbacks have made a ‘contend every season’ strategy less achievable. A touch more emphasis on assembling a high-ceiling roster for the short-term, in lieu of a rigid high-floor fixation, could go a long way towards adding another Lombardi trophy to the Ravens case.