Unless you’ve been hibernating since the glory of Super Bowl XLVII, you’re well aware of the Ravens’ salary cap woes and how critical the negotiations with quarterback Joe Flacco will be between now and March 4.
The entire offseason will hinge on whether the sides will come to an agreement on a long-term contract by that date or if the Ravens will need to use the franchise tag on their starting quarterback. Further complicating the matter would be the decision to use the $14.6 million non-exclusive tag — leaving Flacco able to negotiate with other teams — or the exclusive tag that will cost somewhere around $20 million but would take him off the market entirely.
Regardless of the outcome of the negotiations before the start of the new league year on March 12, the Ravens are likely to make at least a couple cuts in hopes of signing some of their unrestricted free agents. However, the reality of using the franchise tag would mean multiple changes simply to fit Flacco under the salary cap as Baltimore is estimated by NFL.com to be $12.9 million under the cap before addressing the signal-caller or any of its restricted free agents or exclusive rights players.
It’s important to remember the rule of 51 as the top 51 cap numbers on the roster count against the salary cap. The savings from any released player is offset in part by an additional player making it into the top 51 from the bottom of the list. For example, if a released player carrying a $3 million cap number is replaced in the top 51 by another player carrying a $405,000 cap number, the end result is a $2.595 million savings on the salary cap.
Here’s how I’d rank the list of possible candidates to be cut for cap purposes (with the cap savings noted in parentheses), in order from most likely to least likely:
1. Bobbie Williams ($1.2 million)
Skinny: The offensive lineman was relegated to reserve duties in favor of Jah Reid midway through the season and will either retire or be released. At 36, Williams will need to find a home elsewhere to continue his career, but after finally winning a Super Bowl after years in Cincinnati, he would be picking an ideal time to walk away from the game. The Ravens will go younger and cheaper to fill his reserve role in their group of offensive linemen.
2. Matt Birk ($2.05 million)
Skinny: When Birk signed a three-year contract last offseason, it was structured with an understanding of it essentially being a one-year deal as the cap figures grow substantially over the last two years of the deal. The Ravens drafted Delaware product Gino Gradkowski in the fourth round last April to be the heir apparent to Birk at the center position, so all signs point to him taking over for the 2013 season. The 36-year-old Birk is contemplating retirement and there remains a possibility the Ravens decide to keep Birk — who played very well down the stretch — for one more season if they can sign Flacco to a long-term deal in time, but most signs point to the veteran’s days being finished in Baltimore.
3. Vonta Leach ($3 million)
Skinny: The Pro Bowl fullback has done everything the Ravens could have possibly expected after signing him two summers ago, but his high cap number makes him a prime candidate to be cut considering his position just isn’t a big enough priority with the offense continuing to move toward the passing game. The Ravens would certainly miss Leach’s punishing blocking ability, but they could shift tight end Ed Dickson to more of an H-back position while also adding a younger, cheaper fullback coming out of college. With other positions to address and the lack of cap room, Baltimore just can’t justify paying a fullback so much money.
4. Brendon Ayanbadejo ($806,000)
Skinny: His lower number is the reason why the reserve linebacker isn’t ranked higher on the list, but Ayanbadejo would easily be expendable given his age and role on the team. The defense depended on him less in passing situations this season and the 36-year-old also had some lapses on special teams down the stretch. Saving less than $1 million on the cap doesn’t do much, but parting ways with the former Pro Bowl special-teams player would seem like a logical move to make with minimal impact on the makeup of the team if you need to clear money from the cap.
5. Jameel McClain ($1.8 million)
Skinny: If you could look into the crystal ball and guarantee the Ravens would re-sign fellow inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, it would be a no-brainer to part ways with McClain, who missed the end of the season after suffering a spinal cord contusion in early December. However, considering the Ravens are losing the retiring Ray Lewis and potentially Ellerbe, general manger Ozzie Newsome would be hesitant to part ways with another inside linebacker. McClain is solid against the run, but his limitations in pass coverage make him an expendable player if the Ravens are confident they can lock up Ellerbe, which obviously isn’t a sure thing at this point.
6. Jacoby Jones ($4 million)
Skinny: The return specialist and No. 3 receiver carries a large cap number, so his status will be in jeopardy if the Ravens need to use the franchise tag on Flacco. His speed on the outside was a major asset in taking pressure off fellow speed receiver Torrey Smith and opening the intermediate portion of the field to Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta, but he is still a part-time player offensively. You’d hate to lose Jones’ tremendous return ability, so there’s a good chance the Ravens would explore a contract extension to lower his cap figure and keep him for a few more years before potentially making the difficult decision to release him. Jones is owed a $1 million roster bonus in March, so that could complicate the situation further.
7. Anquan Boldin ($6 million)
Skinny: The wide receiver’s appearance on this list is based strictly on his cap number and how far that space would go in curing the Ravens’ problems if it comes down to the franchise tag for Flacco. His quarterback would be one of the first to say he wants Boldin to remain in Baltimore, so it’s likely Newsome will pursue an extension with the 32-year-old to reduce the 2013 cap number before resorting to a release. Boldin has already said he’d retire if the Ravens cut him, so perhaps the general manager could remind him of that in trying to strike a cap-friendly deal. The departure of Jones would hurt, but parting ways with Boldin would almost appear to be crippling in the short term as there is no logical replacement on the roster to count on with the disappointing development of Tandon Doss.