OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Even after winning their second Super Bowl only days ago, the Ravens wasted no time in beginning preparations for the 2013 season.
A day after celebrating with a downtown parade and a rally at M&T Bank Stadium, general manager Ozzie Newsome, head coach John Harbaugh, and the front office were back at it with a 10-hour personnel meeting on Wednesday in which they evaluated 70 to 75 players. It’s no secret the Ravens face a tight salary cap this offseason, leaving many to wonder if they’d go the same route used in the offseason following Super Bowl XXXV in which the organization put cap ramifications on the back burner in favor of making another run at a championship.
Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti put that possibility to rest at the Ravens’ season-review press conference on Thursday.
“We will not repeat what we did in 2001 because we’re trying to build where we can win Super Bowls more than just one more time,” Newsome said. “I think our team is structured differently this time also. We do have some veterans that will probably be retiring, but we’ve got a great nucleus of young players and players that are just heading into their prime that we’re going to build this team around. We are not going to be restructuring contracts or doing all of those different things to be able to just maintain this team to make another run. We’re not doing that.
“That doesn’t mean that we don’t want to try to go and repeat.”
That reality means the Ravens will likely say goodbye to a number of their 13 unrestricted free agents, which include safety Ed Reed, linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, cornerback Cary Williams, and quarterback Joe Flacco. Of those players, Flacco is the only one certain to return as the Ravens will try to reach a long-term agreement with the Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player prior to the deadline for using the franchise tag on March 4.
Even with a long-term contract completed with the quarterback, the Ravens are unlikely to maintain the services of Kruger or Williams, who will both receive significant offers on the free-agent market in mid-March. According to several reports, the Ravens are expected to have roughly $15 million in cap space including the money saved from Ray Lewis’ retirement, but that doesn’t account for money needed for the tag for Flacco and for tenders offered to restricted and exclusive-rights free agents. Of course, additional money could come via the retirement of veterans such as Matt Birk or Bobbie Williams or by releasing other veterans.
“We’re not going to get caught up in the moment and do things to our salary cap and make decisions in the euphoria of winning that could hurt us in 2014 and 2015 like we did in 2001,” owner Steve Bisciotti said. “Every single veteran was restructured, I think, so that every single veteran could stay and then we ended up losing so many people the next year. We don’t want to do that.”
In order to maintain any real sense of continuity, the Ravens must agree on a long-term contract with Flacco, but agent Joe Linta has said he’s aiming for his client to become the highest-paid quarterback in the league. The 2008 first-round pick is believed to be seeking $20 million per season with a significant portion of the deal including guaranteed money.
Bisciotti said Thursday the organization offered Flacco a “top-5″ contract last summer and believes winning the Super Bowl this season would not hinder negotiations more than if the Ravens had exited in the first round of the playoffs.
“We’re looking to get a fair deal with Joe and, yes, the franchise number does consume a lot of cap room,” Newsome said. “We’re looking for a fair deal; Joe Linta is looking for a fair deal. If we are able to get a deal done, it will allow us to be able to participate more in the market if we so choose. But we understand what the priority is.”
That priority would include being forced to use the franchise tag to keep Flacco in Baltimore, which would cost $14.6 million for the 2013 season. However, that is only the price for a non-exclusive designation, meaning teams could sign Flacco to an offer sheet if they’d be willing to fork over two first-round picks should the Ravens not match the offer.
The exclusive rights tag would cost roughly $20 million, but it would prohibit teams desperate enough for a quarterback to negotiate with Flacco. Last year, the Redskins traded three first-round picks and a second-round pick to the St. Louis Rams in exchange for the second overall pick to draft Robert Griffin III.
“What you have to look at is what the Redskins did this past year to move up to get Robert Griffin,” Newsome said. “If someone thinks that a quarterback is that valuable and I’m sure you can talk to [the Washington front office], they’re very happy with [Griffin] right now and they don’t mind not having those draft picks. I don’t know what 31 other teams are doing, so we have to prepare ourselves for it.”
As the Ravens continue to organize their list of priorities for the 2013 offseason, the fate of Flacco remains at the top of the list as a long-term agreement is a must in order to maintain hope of re-signing or acquiring any impact players.
But time is running out as Newsome joked that the Ravens are “five weeks behind” the rest of the league after winning the Super Bowl. Much has changed with the perception of Flacco, who just completed one of the greatest playoff performances in NFL history.
“I’m coming away today thinking that we can get a deal done,” Newsome said. “We’ve gotten deals done with Haloti [Ngata], [Jonathan Ogden], Ray [Lewis], Ray Rice, Ed Reed, [Terrell] Suggs. I’ve got a very good owner who understands the business [and] understands the importance of certain positions, so I’m optimistic.”
Biggest need up the middle
Asked to assess the biggest area of need for next season, Newsome admitted the middle of the Baltimore defense needed to be improved, in part because of the failure of young players to step up but also due to a number of possible departures.
With Lewis retiring and Ellerbe and Reed potentially hitting the open market, the Ravens could look very different at the linebacker and safety positions next season. Jameel McClain, Josh Bynes, and Brendon Ayanbadejo would be the top returning inside linebackers while 2012 fourth-round pick Christian Thompson would be the next man up on the depth chart at the safety position.
The combination of third-year player Terrence Cody and veteran Ma’ake Kemoeatu was also severely disappointing at the nose tackle position.
“As we talked about it, the middle of the defense [is a priority],” Newsome said. “We think we’ve got to get better at defensive tackle. We know we have one linebacker retiring and another that’s a free agent. We have a safety that’s a free agent and some young guys that have yet to step up. We would say the middle of the defense is the one area that we would concentrate on.
“In saying that, we realized that pass rushers and guys that can cover, we felt pretty good about that.”
The Ravens might not feel as good about their pass rush with the expected departure of Kruger, but Terrell Suggs figures to bounce back from an injury-plagued season and rookie Courtney Upshaw played effectively against the run and should continue to develop in his first full offseason with the team.
Newsome expressed no specific concerns on the offensive side of the football beyond the need to secure Flacco long-term.
“Offensively, we will not turn down a good player if that player is available for us on the offensive side of the ball,” Newsome said. “We just won’t do it, because you can never have enough depth.”
Chance of Reed return?