Clearing Cap or Cleaning House?

February 17, 2009 | Thyrl Nelson

Was Cutting Chris McAlister a Move To Clear Cap Space To Retain Their High Priced Free Agents? Or Was It The Beginning of a Defensive Makeover For The Ravens?


You’re never on the same team two years in a row. The Ravens made the first of many tough personnel decisions on Monday when the team chose to part ways with long time cornerback Chris McAlister. Now the question becomes, were they simply freeing up enough money to take care of their high profile free agents, or was this the beginning of a housekeeping project that could have the face of the defense looking quite different next season?


Among the Ravens’ free agents, 2 in my opinion are must signs, 3 if you include Jim Leonhard, but the focus of most seems to be on Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, Jason Brown and Bart Scott. For my money, Suggs and Brown are no-brainers. Retaining those two has to be priority number one for the off-season. Lewis and/or Scott could be a much trickier matter.


Most it seems are resigned to allowing Scott to walk, and trying to bring back Lewis. But since Ray’s whirlwind media tour, in which he’s seemed to fawn all over any team that someone mentions as a possible destination, some seem to be warming up to the idea of letting Lewis walk, and maybe keeping Scott around until a long term replacement can be found.


The Ravens pride themselves on having a defensive system that has been basically plug and play for quite a long time now. During that time, they’ve allowed a number of high priced free agents from that side of the ball to walk, with little success for most. That system though has always been supported by an assortment of All-World type talent, despite the numerous defections.


The system has worked, although for short stretches, even without Ray Lewis from time to time. And last season, it finally worked well without the services of Chris McAlister for the first time. That, along with apparent personality issues, spelled the beginning of the end for McAlister. When it comes to Lewis though, the decision will not be as easy.


Even if Lewis were to go to Dallas or somewhere else and fall flat on his face, there would still be many among the faithful who’d never forgive Ozzie for allowing him to wear another uniform in any capacity. That’s par for the course when you’ve achieved the status of Ray Lewis in this town, it’s also ultimately one of the biggest differences between Lewis’ and McAlister’s situations. Surprisingly to me, many seem all too happy to bid C-Mac good riddance.


In addition to trying to determine what Lewis’ Market value is, and how much longer he’ll play effectively, which both have to be major factors in Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome’s mind right now, he’ll also have to answer a much bigger question. That being, is Ray Lewis just another product of a superior system, or is the system a product of the superior play of Ray Lewis and others?


Now to say that Ray Lewis is product of the system doesn’t do justice to his career and accomplishments. But it could be a worthwhile argument, that the same system that makes Pro-Bowl caliber players out of marginal NFL talent, could take ready made Pro-Bowl talent, like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and put them in the conversations among the best ever at their respective positions. If Ozzie believes in his system, he knows that replacing Lewis won’t be as easy as replacing Ed Hartwell or Adalius Thomas, it will probably take at least a couple of players, but letting him walk should still be an easy football decision.


Picking up a couple of players with the money that Lewis would have gotten, along with what McAlister was slated to make, is probably the right decision from a football perspective, although it may not be too popular with the fans. Unless they franchise him at nearly $11.5 million, which is probably still too much, they’re probably better off letting him walk. It’s what, I’d bet, the Patriots or Steelers would do.


On the offensive side of the ball, the Ravens have some promise, but nothing even remotely resembling a system. They could use some money to make a splash on that side of the ball. Hell, they’d get back nearly $20 million from last year’s cap on Lewis and McAllister alone, a couple of more prudent cuts or restructures, and the team could be in position to make a big splash in free agency for once.


The possibility of Nnamdi Asomugha hitting free agency could have every team in the league intrigued too. It would be a pleasure to commit learning to spell his name to memory. He, along with Suggs and Ngata could be the foundation for that system for a long time to come. There might even be some money left over to get a receiver or two, like Nate Washington or Malcolm Floyd, rather than trading for a big name.


The money that the team saved today will certainly go a long way toward retaining whichever of their free agents they choose to. The question is which ones will those be? If Ozzie believes in his system, the housecleaning may have just begun.