With linebacker Terrell Suggs’ long-term future secure and the Ravens gaining an additional $4.6 million in cap space in the process, they now turn their attention to the next biggest items on the offseason agenda.
Left tackle Eugene Monroe and tight end Dennis Pitta are the top priorities, and the ability to work out agreements for both unrestricted free agents is aided by the Ravens holding just under $16 million in salary cap room after Suggs’ contract extension. However, with the start of free agency on March 11 only three weeks away, it becomes more and more difficult to persuade a pending free agent to agree on your terms as he sees the benefit of a wide-open market in full focus.
As contract talks remain far apart with both players, the Ravens have until March 3 to decide whether they want to place the franchise tag on an unrestricted free agent, but such an option appears too expensive for Monroe as the tag for an offensive lineman is projected to be a hefty $11.1 million for the 2014 season and he simply isn’t regarded as one of the best left tackles in the NFL. That leaves Baltimore with the decision of whether to use the designation on Pitta with the 2014 franchise tag projected to be $6.7 million for a tight end.
Such an option would appear to make sense if the sides couldn’t agree and the Ravens were unsure of Pitta’s worth or the fifth-year tight end simply wanted to reestablish his value after a serious hip injury limited him to just four games last season.
If only it were that simple.
Few have paid closer attention to the showdown between New Orleans and All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham than the Ravens as New Orleans is prepared to use the franchise tag on Drew Brees’ top pass-catching target who collected more than 1,215 yards and 16 touchdown catches last season. As a threat who lines up in the slot and out wide more often than as a traditional tight end, Graham is expected to contest that he should be tagged as a wide receiver, which carries a tender that’s $4.8 million more than the anticipated tight end figure in 2014.
While Pitta isn’t at Graham’s level in terms of production, he can easily file a similar grievance after he lined up in the slot on 79.7 percent of his routes last season, according to Pro Football Focus. And while many have argued that the tight end position is simply evolving — with the 6-foot-7 Graham as transcendent as anybody — the collective bargaining agreement makes it clear that a franchise player is to be tendered at the position “at which [he] participated in the most plays during the prior league year.”
In the same way that they prefer not to tag Monroe because he isn’t a top-five tackle in the league, the Ravens can’t risk the possibility of needing to tie an $11.5 million commitment to Pitta. Of course, Baltimore found itself in a similar position with Suggs years ago when he argued that he should be viewed as a defensive end before the sides eventually split the difference in the franchise tag costs for a defensive end compared to a linebacker.
But even a compromised figure of just over $9 million would eat up much of the Ravens’ available cap space in an offseason in which they have a plethora of needs on both sides of the football after the first non-playoff season of the John Harbaugh era.
And Pitta’s agent, Justin Schulman, is aware of that reality as talks continue.
There’s no disputing Pitta’s importance to the offense as one of Joe Flacco’s favorite weapons over the last couple years, but quantifying that on a relatively small sample size is problematic for a player who will turn 29 in June. His best year came in 2012 as his 61 catches ranked ninth among tight ends and his 669 receiving yards were 11th. Pitta has 61 additional catches for 575 yards in his three other seasons combined in Baltimore.
Prior to his devastating hip injury last July, Pitta was expected to fill an expanded role out of the slot to ease the pain of Anquan Boldin’s departure, but the Ravens were never able to see that come to fruition with him missing more than four months of action. At the very least, Pitta was able to prove he was healthy enough to continue his career at a high level after playing in the final four games of the season and recording 20 catches.
With the uncertainty surrounding the price of the franchise tag and Pitta’s absence being an obvious detriment to the offense last season, are the Ravens being backed into a corner from a negotiating standpoint?
Even if Pitta’s representation would have a difficult time making the argument that he deserves to be paid in the same stratosphere as talents such as Graham or New England’s Rob Gronkowski, hefty contracts handed out to non-elite tight ends such as Jared Cook ($16 million guaranteed), Zach Miller ($13 million guaranteed), and Marcedes Lewis ($12.85 million guaranteed) in recent years certainly won’t help general manager Ozzie Newsome. The top tight ends in the league generally have an average salary of $7 million per season over the course of their contract, but it always comes down to how much guaranteed money a team is willing to hand over.
After Cook secured $16 million in guaranteed money last offseason — which included a $5 million signing bonus and three years of guaranteed salary — it isn’t farfetched that Pitta could be looking for guaranteed money approaching the $20 million range.
His production and talents indicate that he should be paid as a top-10 tight end, but his leverage with the franchise tag and what’s still viewed by some as untapped potential may drive the cost much higher than the Ravens would prefer to go.
The clock is ticking on not only the decision to use the tag but the possibility of Pitta hitting the open market with the organization already declaring the need to add an impact wide receiver to an offense that ranked 29th in the NFL last year.
The Ravens can’t afford to lose their starting tight end.
But whether they can afford him without making sacrifices elsewhere remains to be seen.