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Ravens position battles to watch this summer

Posted on 24 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens possess one of the deepest rosters in the NFL entering the 2015 season, but a number of key position battles will headline the summer as they seek their seventh trip to the postseason in eight years.

After losing the likes of Haloti Ngata, Torrey Smith, Owen Daniels, and Pernell McPhee, general manager Ozzie Newsome has done a remarkable job reloading, but several questions must be answered before the season begins in Denver on Sept. 13.

Below is an early look at each competition with the first full-squad workout of the summer set for July 30:

Starting wide receiver
The candidates: Breshad Perriman, Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown
Why to be optimistic: The 26th overall pick in the draft, Perriman was projected to go in the middle of the first round by some and is a faster and bigger version of Torrey Smith on paper while Aiken and Brown are still developing and contributed a season ago.
Why to be concerned: Beyond the 13,000-plus receiving yards from 15-year veteran Steve Smith, the Ravens’ other returning wide receivers made a combined 55 catches last year, making you pray that Perriman is ready to contribute immediately.
The favorite: Aiken is the leader in the clubhouse following minicamp and has developed an impressive rapport with Joe Flacco, but Perriman’s skills are too enticing to pass on him as the favorite to start.

Starting tight end
The candidates: Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, Dennis Pitta
Why to be optimistic: Even if we assume Pitta will not be cleared to play in 2015, the Ravens invested a 2014 third-round pick in Gillmore and a second-round pick in Williams this spring for a reason.
Why to be concerned: Gillmore caught just 10 passes as a rookie while Williams did not stand out during spring practices and is still trying to adjust to Marc Trestman’s offensive system.
The favorite: After showing improvement late in his rookie year, Gillmore was a surprise of the spring with a better physique and improved ability to make catches in traffic while Williams was very quiet.

Starting defensive end
The candidates: Chris Canty, Lawrence Guy, Brent Urban
Why to be optimistic: Canty and Guy were effective holding down the 5-technique position a year ago despite Urban’s knee injury that derailed his anticipated role in the rotation as a rookie.
Why to be concerned: Canty is entering his 11th year and the Ravens deemed him expendable before bringing him back at a cheaper rate while Urban has been unable to shake injuries going back to his collegiate days.
The favorite: Urban was very active during spring practices and could push the veteran starter, but it’s too tough to pick against Canty, who has started 119 games in his NFL career.

Starting safeties
The candidates: Will Hill, Kendrick Lewis, Matt Elam, Terrence Brooks
Why to be optimistic: Hill proved capable in handling a starting job in the second half of 2014 while Lewis was signed for his ability to play deep center, something the Ravens lacked in coverage a year ago.
Why to be concerned: Elam was a clear disappointment in his first two seasons while Brooks is still recovering from a torn ACL, creating legitimate depth concerns going into training camp.
The favorites: The Ravens gave Elam some reps with the starting defense this spring, but it would take substantial improvement for the 2013 first-round pick to overtake Hill or Lewis for starting spots.

Return specialist
The candidates: Michael Campanaro, DeAndre Carter, Asa Jackson, Fitz Toussaint, Lardarius Webb, Steve Smith
Why to be optimistic: Campanaro and Jackson have shown flashes in the return game in very limited opportunities while Webb and Smith bring experience to the equation.
Why to be concerned: It’s difficult to buy either Webb or Smith as a serious candidate to handle the job because of their importance, leaving the real competition to players lacking experience or facing questions about their durability.
The favorite: There isn’t one as this competition lacks candidates to really feel good about at this point, making you wonder if the man to handle the job is even on the current roster.

Backup running back
The candidates: Lorenzo Taliaferro, Buck Allen
Why to be optimistic: The Ravens feel very good about Justin Forsett in a starting role for a second straight year and have invested fourth-round picks in running backs in each of the last two drafts.
Why to be concerned: Taliaferro and Allen have a combined 68 carries in the NFL and are the primary backups behind a 29-year-old back who has one year of experience as a full-time back since college.
The favorite: Last month, Allen would have been my choice because of the versatility he showed in college, but a slimmed-down Taliaferro moved well this spring and has an experience edge for now.

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Webb aiming to put difficult 2014 campaign behind him

Posted on 18 June 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb knows this is a critical season for his NFL future.

Though he restructured the remaining three years of his current contract to provide the organization extra cap space earlier this offseason, the 29-year-old knows he probably won’t survive a repeat of last year when he missed training camp and three of the first four games of the regular season due to a lower back injury. When he did play, Webb appeared slow and struggled in pass coverage for much of the season as the Ravens were dealt a plethora of injuries at cornerback and finished 23rd in the league in pass defense.

Reporting for this week’s mandatory minicamp, Webb appears slimmer and had a strong practice on Wednesday, breaking up several passes and playing tight coverage in 11-on-11 drills. Entering his seventh season in Baltimore, the 2009 third-round pick isn’t taking his newfound health for granted.

“It feels good just to be able to run around and [not] have any pain,” Webb said. “But right now, we’re just working on the secondary [and] just putting the work in to get us back to where we’re supposed to be.”

The healthy returns of Webb and fellow starting cornerback Jimmy Smith are the biggest reasons why the Ravens expect to be much better in the secondary than they were a year ago. General manager Ozzie Newsome added further depth at the position by taking Texas Southern cornerback Tray Walker in the fourth round of this year’s draft and signing veteran slot cornerback Kyle Arrington last month.

Though Webb’s absence from voluntary organized team activities was surprising considering he was coming off a difficult year and could be a cap casualty next offseason, the veteran defensive back said he was focused on individual training to strengthen and balance his core during that time. Should he not bounce back from last year’s struggles, the Ravens could save $3.5 million in cap space by cutting him next winter before he’s scheduled to carry a $9.5 million cap figure in 2016.

The early reviews for Webb this week have been mostly positive as he bounced back from a shaky opening day against veteran wide receiver Steve Smith to break up several passes on Wednesday, including an end-zone throw intended for Marlon Brown and an outside route to rookie tight Maxx Williams.

“He came out and he looks like he’s in shape,” head coach John Harbaugh said on Wednesday. “His feet look really good. He’s moving his feet, he’s changing direction. Better today than yesterday, which is to be expected. He hasn’t been in the OTAs, so the football movement stuff is going to be new for him. He looks good, so it’s a plus.”

Webb and the secondary are trying to put the memories of last season behind them as they aim for health and better production in 2015 to help the Ravens advance deeper into the playoffs. After watching the Ravens offense twice jump out to 14-point leads and score 31 points against New England in a four-point loss in the divisional round, it’s clear that Webb wants the pass defense to be able to provide better support to the other side of the ball in 2015.

After the Ravens collected only 11 interceptions a year ago, Webb and Smith being able to play full seasons would go a long way in trying to create more game-changing plays this coming season.

“Let’s get the ball. Let’s get the ball back to Joe Flacco and let him do his thing,” Webb said. “You know Joe’s got all the pieces around him. Joe is an awesome quarterback, so if we can just give him extra possessions, it’s going to be a big year.”

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Ravens open to numerous possibilities in return game

Posted on 10 June 2015 by Luke Jones

Of the various position battles expected to take place this summer, the uneasiest ones for the Ravens come at the punt and kick returner spots.

With the Ravens jettisoning 2012 Pro Bowl return specialist Jacoby Jones earlier in the offseason, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg is casting a wide net in trying to find his replacement. If voluntary organized team activities are any indication, numerous veterans and rookies alike will be in the competition mix.

“I think we’ll limit it to keeping the offensive linemen out of there,” said Rosburg as he laughed on Monday afternoon. “We’re not going to let any of those guys go out there, but we are going to have a long line when it comes to that time.”

Younger players such as cornerback Asa Jackson, wide receivers Michael Campanaro and DeAndre Carter, and running back Fitz Toussaint figure to receive plenty of opportunities this summer, but Rosburg has also given veteran wideout Steve Smith some reps this spring and will do the same with veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb during training camp. Smith and Webb have shown plenty of ability in the return game throughout their careers, but the Ravens would obviously prefer not to use key veteran starters to return kicks on any kind of a regular basis.

In a perfect world, the Ravens would find someone to return both punts and kickoffs, but versatility will be critical as they’re not looking for a player to solely be a return man. That’s the biggest reason why the organization cut Jones, whose role as a wide receiver all but disappeared as he struggled with drops in his final season in Baltimore.

“You’d like to see a return specialist do both, and also contribute on offense or defense,” Rosburg said. “My personal philosophy is I don’t want just a return specialist. That’s not enough value to the roster. It doesn’t help the team enough.”

While training camp practices provide opportunities for evaluation, limits on contact during special-teams drills make it difficult for Rosburg to truly determine what he has. It’s easy to know what veterans such as Webb or Smith have to offer, but determining whether a rookie free agent like Carter can handle the job is best assessed during preseason games.

Securing the ball and turning upfield is simple enough on a Wednesday afternoon at the team’s Owings Mills training complex in early August, but doing it consistently when it matters is a different story.

“I like to see guys in games,” Rosburg said. “Practice is practice. It’s really valuable [and] it is important. You see what skills guys have, you watch them play, and you get a feel for them. Having said that, there’s nothing like game reps. Handling a crowd [and] handling a game situation is really important. We’ll make the decision based on who is best in preseason.”

Predicting which candidate that might be at this point is anyone’s guess.

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Five questions pondering Flacco, Webb, Monroe, Ravens guards

Posted on 05 June 2015 by Luke Jones

Every Friday, I’ll ponder five topics related to the Ravens or Orioles (or a mix of both).

Five questions …

1. Is it just me or should the Cam Newton contract put all discussion to rest about the deal Joe Flacco received two years ago? To some degree, criticism we heard about Flacco’s contract is now being thrown Newton’s way as he received an extension that pays him an average yearly salary of $20.8 million. We spend so much time ranking quarterbacks and determining which ones are “elite” when it really comes down to a very simple question for NFL teams. Can your quarterback win you a Super Bowl with a reasonable supporting cast around him or not? If the answer is yes, you pay him — plain and simple. Of course, determining the line of demarcation is the challenge as Miami recently paying Ryan Tannehill was an example of that. In terms of average annual salary, does Newton deserve to be the fourth-highest paid quarterback in the NFL? No, but it was his turn in line and Carolina has enough reason to think he can eventually lead the Panthers to the promised land. That’s all that matters.

2. Is it just me or does the Ravens’ current guard situation remind you of the 2011 season? Most assume Baltimore will ultimately re-sign Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda while fourth-year left guard Kelechi Osemele will likely depart via free agency after this season, but I do wonder if that would be the best path for the Ravens. Yanda is a four-time Pro Bowl selection and the best guard in the NFL, but he’ll also be 31 in September. If his demands are through the roof, can you justify giving lucrative money to a player who will be approaching his mid-30s during the life of the contract? Meanwhile, Osemele turns just 26 later this month is likely to get even better over the next couple years. The situation isn’t identical, but it reminds me of 2011 when Ben Grubbs and Yanda were both scheduled to become free agents. Many thought the Ravens should sign Grubbs, but Yanda received an affordable extension that summer and the 2007 first-round pick departed the following winter. I’ll still assume that the Ravens keep Yanda, but it would be tough allowing a much younger player to depart.

3. Is it just me or should Lardarius Webb and Eugene Monroe be attending voluntary organized team activities after injury-plagued campaigns last season? Any veteran player has the right to skip voluntary spring practices, but I can’t help but think the Ravens aren’t thrilled to see Webb and Monroe missing OTA workouts — at least the ones that have been open to media thus far. Counting the playoffs, injuries forced Monroe to miss seven starts last season and the left tackle’s contract is structured in a way that the Ravens could release him next offseason if they’re not thrilled with his performance, as was the case last year. Meanwhile, Webb may have restructured his current contract this offseason, but Baltimore could easily cut the veteran cornerback next winter if his play doesn’t improve substantially from 2014. It’s one thing for established veterans to skip spring workouts, but those with question marks from the previous year are taking a chance to further fall out of good graces when they’re not around in the spring.

4. Is it just me or could a healthy Brent Urban be a difference-maker for a revamped defensive line? Much attention has been paid to the interior part of the line following the trade of five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, but the 5-technique defensive end spot is a position of interest as veteran Chris Canty was cut and re-signed at a cheaper rate earlier this year. Canty has been mostly solid in his two years with Baltimore, but he will also be 33 in November and contemplated retirement this past winter. Urban has been quite active during spring workouts and appears fully recovered from last summer’s knee injury. Not only could he challenge Canty for his starting spot, but the 6-foot-7 University of Virginia product could be an intriguing option to replace Pernell McPhee as an interior pass rusher on third down. Urban will need to prove himself this summer, but it was no secret that the 2014 fourth-round pick was going to be a big part of the rotation as a rookie. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him become a key contributor for the Ravens’ front this season.

5. Is it just me or are the Ravens getting more than enough love this offseason? I’ve made no secret about how impressed I was with general manager Ozzie Newsome’s work in the 2015 draft and the savvy signing of slot cornerback Kyle Arrington last month, but I was surprised to see Sports Illustrated’s Peter King list the Ravens first in his preseason power rankings. Looking at it objectively, Ravens fans would be incensed if Pittsburgh were ranked No. 1 after losing a starting wide receiver, a starting tight end, a five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle, an impact pass rusher, and a good offensive coordinator. Make no mistake, I expect the Ravens to be a playoff team in 2015 and they could very well be poised to make a championship run if wide receiver Breshad Perriman and tight end Maxx Williams are ready to make meaningful contributions as rookies. Everything the Ravens have done looks strong on paper, but that doesn’t always mean it comes to fruition on the field as quickly as you’d like, especially when relying on unproven players. For the fans who like to play the disrespect card in terms of how the national media views their team, King is taking a leap of faith to put Baltimore at the top of the list.

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Even after strong draft, Ravens remain vulnerable at cornerback

Posted on 05 May 2015 by Luke Jones

As the Ravens receive much-deserved praise for addressing an extensive list of needs and wants in this year’s draft, one clear truth remained at the end of an otherwise-successful weekend.

The secondary remains vulnerable after the Ravens finished 23rd in pass defense during the 2014 season. To be clear, this isn’t meant to be a biting criticism as detractors pointing to the failures of the Ravens defense in the divisional playoff loss to New England last January are conveniently failing to mention that Baltimore needed to replace starting wide receiver Torrey Smith and starting tight end Owen Daniels before worrying about a No. 3 cornerback or help at safety, a position with few immediate solutions in this year’s draft.

Yes, the defense deserved more blame than the offense in that 35-31 defeat to the Patriots, but the Ravens weren’t going to replace two individuals responsible for 32 percent of Joe Flacco’s 2014 passing yards on hopes and dreams alone, which is why they selected Brehad Perriman and Maxx Williams with their first two picks.

Of the nine selections made by general manager Ozzie Newsome, however, fourth-round cornerback Tray Walker has raised the most eyebrows as many projected the Texas Southern product to be a late-round selection or even a priority free agent. The Ravens really like the 6-foot-2 corner’s upside and worked him out privately during the pre-draft process, but it’s fair to wonder if it was a reach to ensure they’d come away with at least one cornerback with room for grwoth. At the very least, it would be quite ambitious to assume Walker will be ready to immediately step into the No. 3 cornerback role behind starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb.

“Could we have taken a corner in the first round? We probably could have. In the second round? We probably could have,” Newsome said. “But at the point when we were picking, it wasn’t the best player. But we do feel good. Getting Jimmy back healthy, Lardarius having a year to train, and then some of the young guys to have a chance to play being in the system for a second year [will help].”

Newsome’s correct about the Ravens being ravaged by injuries with five cornerbacks finishing the season on injured reserve. While Rashaan Melvin wouldn’t have been filling a starting role late last season under normal circumstances, the former Tampa Bay practice-squad member played well enough to garner a look as the potential third cornerback. He, Walker, Anthony Levine, and the oft-injured Asa Jackson currently stand as the candidates for the No. 3 job, but the Ravens will also be depending on first-year cornerbacks coach Matt Weiss and first-year defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt — who served as Steve Spagnuolo’s assistant secondary coach a year ago — to oversee their development.

Finding a No. 3 cornerback is not an impossible task, but that only comes with the assumption that Smith is back to form after a season-ending Lisfranc injury and Webb can build on the improvement shown late in 2014 after a back injury cost him all of training camp and the first month of the regular season. The two have missed 33 regular-season games due to injuries in their respective careers and have only played full 16-game seasons three times between them.

It’s also worth noting that the Ravens ranked just 24th in pass defense before Smith went down for the season in Week 8, proof that all wasn’t well in the secondary before defensive coordinator Dean Pees lost his top cornerback.

With the draft complete, it’s worth noting that some teams will part ways with veteran cornerbacks in the coming days and weeks like the Patriots did with Alfonzo Dennard on Tuesday. Of course, none of those names can be regarded as a sure bet, but the Ravens could find an appealing candidate or two to throw into the current No. 3 and No. 4 mix, especially with more than $10 million in current salary cap space.

“We’re not done putting this team together right now,” Newsome said at the draft’s conclusion. “It’s still maybe four months before we have to play Denver [in the season opener]. We’re still going to be mining for players to make our roster to make us better.”

Despite everything accomplished with their nine selections this past weekend, cornerback remains a top position to try to improve between now and the start of the season.

Pondering Pitta’s future

Admittedly, I’ve been surprised by some of the reaction to the Ravens drafting two tight ends and the “new-found” conclusions many have reached about the future of veteran Dennis Pitta.

All offseason, Baltimore has expressed hope that the 2010 fourth-round pick would be able to play again after suffering two devastating right hip injuries in a 14-month span. But, like everyone else, the organization saw the manner in which Pitta innocuously caught a short pass and tried to turn upfield before crumpling to the ground without even being touched in Cleveland last September.

Knowing Pitta’s character and commitment to the game, I would never count out his potential return to the field. But I’m also rooting for a 29-year-old man to do what’s best for him and his family, whether that means trying to play football again or calling it a career with what should be plenty of financial security.

If Pitta returns, having too many tight ends is a great problem to have, but the Ravens simply can’t count on any production from him in 2015 or beyond. Even if he does resume playing, it will be difficult for the Ravens — or anyone else — to shake the fear of what happened to Pitta in Cleveland from happening again.

Return game

Another position of interest that appeared to go unaddressed in this year’s draft was return specialist as the Ravens must replace veteran Jacoby Jones.

Many have pointed to wide receiver Michael Campanaro as the top candidate to return punts, but it will be worth keeping an eye on rookie free agent DeAndre Carter from Sacramento State. Carter is only 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, but he was projected by some to be a late-round pick with potential to be a solid return man at the next level.

The Ravens have a history of finding rookie free agent returners from B.J. Sams and Cory Ross to Deonte Thompson, so an opportunity could be there for Carter despite a very crowded group of young wide receivers.

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Webb reportedly restructures deal with Ravens

Posted on 17 March 2015 by Luke Jones

A week after the Ravens traded one of the best players in franchise history because of a negotiating impasse, veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb is reportedly staying put.

According to CBS Sports, the sides agreed to renegotiate what remains of a six-year, $50 million contract signed in 2012. Originally scheduled to make $8 million in base salary in 2015, Webb will instead receive $6 million, which would appear to lower his cap figure from $12 million to $10 million for the coming season if no other maneuvering was done.

Armed with less than $8 million in cap space before the signing of veteran safety Kendrick Lewis to a three-year deal, the Ravens knew they would need to clear more cap room to make further additions this offseason. Webb can now make roughly $18 million over the final three years of his deal if playing-time incentives are reached, according to The Sun. This would indicate Webb’s scheduled base salaries of $8 million in 2016 and $8.5 million in 2017 were also reduced.

The restructuring appears to be a reasonable compromise after the sides had been negotiating for weeks. Coming off a disappointing 2014 campaign even by his own admission, Webb will still receive a $6 million base salary, which would currently be the 13th-highest in the NFL for 2015. However, a look at the bloated contracts a number of cornerbacks have received in free agency indicated there would have been a good market for Webb despite his underwhelming play.

Had the Ravens cut Webb, they would have received only $2 million in cap savings, which is what they’ll pick up with the adjusted contract while still retaining the 29-year-old defensive back’s services. A release with a post-June 1 designation would have saved the Ravens $8 million in space, but those resources would not have been available until long after most free agents of any substance had already found homes.

General manager Ozzie Newsome traded five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to the Detroit Lions last week after the sides failed to agree to a contract extension to reduce a $16 million cap hit for the 2015 season.

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Suggs restructure puts band-aid on Ravens’ cap woes

Posted on 10 March 2015 by Luke Jones

Needing to be under the 2015 salary cap by 4 p.m. Tuesday, the Ravens found a temporary band-aid by restructuring the contract of veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs.

According to The Sun, Baltimore has converted $3 million of Suggs’ scheduled $4 million base salary for 2015 into a bonus, which will create an additional $2.25 million in cap space for this season. The move also adds an extra $750,000 to Suggs’ cap figures for 2016, 2017, and 2018, which isn’t substantial but is still something the Ravens try to avoid doing.

Last offseason, Suggs signed a four-year extension that gives the six-time Pro Bowl selection an excellent chance to finish his career in Baltimore.

The move was necessary to get the Ravens below the salary cap after they had tendered their restricted and exclusive-rights free agents on Monday. However, it still leaves them with work to do if they want to re-sign any of their unrestricted free agents or explore other players available on the open market.

General manager Ozzie Newsome would still like to get something done with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to provide relief from his current $16 million cap figure in the final year of his contract. However, the NFL Network reported Tuesday morning that the “status quo” is likely remain between the Ravens and Ngata, which would do the organization no favors in trying to add other players to the current roster this offseason.

The restructuring of Suggs’ deal is a sign that the Ravens are trying to buy more time to work something out with Ngata, but it’s difficult to imagine this offseason being a productive one without movement on the five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle’s contract.

The Ravens are also trying to restructure the contract of veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb, who currently carries a $12 million cap figure for the 2015 season.

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Series of unfortunate events led to Ravens’ 2015 cap woes

Posted on 09 March 2015 by Luke Jones

With free agency set to officially begin on Tuesday, the Ravens find themselves in a familiar position of lacking salary-cap space.

It’s the cost of doing business when you draft well and strive to keep as many of your own young players as you can. That’s the proven method for sustained success compared to those teams who draft poorly and subsequently throw around money on the volatile free-agent market to try to build a winning team.

Of course, the reminder must be delivered to those Ravens fans who panic every March after seeing some players depart and are too impatient to wait for general manager Ozzie Newsome to act. The more levelheaded fans recognize this yearly process and remind anyone who will listen of the old mantra, “In Ozzie we trust.”

But this offseason is unique as the Ravens are dealing with the fallout from a series of unfortunate events that have wreaked havoc on their salary cap, leaving them with just $4.639 million in space before tendering their restricted and exclusive-rights free agents ahead of Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline. Much attention has fallen on the future of defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who carries a $16 million cap figure for the 2015 season, but three other events have left Newsome and the Ravens in even worse shape than they might have been under normal circumstances.

The most obvious is the lingering fallout from the Ray Rice saga as the Ravens are still carrying $9.5 million in dead money on their 2015 cap after cutting the running back last Sept. 8. Even though the 28-year-old free agent hasn’t even been on the roster for over six months, his ghost carries the fourth-highest cap figure on the team for the coming season.

Some argued at the time of his signing in 2012 that the Ravens shouldn’t commit to a long-term contract with Rice, but no one could have foreseen the circumstances that led to the termination of his contract.

The second example remains more open-ended, but tight end Dennis Pitta’s second hip injury in 14 months last September has not only left his career in jeopardy but has created another gaping hole of dead resources. Though nothing is official in terms of his playing status, Pitta’s $4 million base salary is guaranteed for 2015 and it would be more costly to cut him than to keep him this year, meaning his $6.2 million cap figure will stay on the books despite the strong possibility that he sits out the season.

It’s fair to question whether the Ravens should have been more conservative before committing to Pitta last offseason — they could have used the franchise or transition tag to make sure his surgically-repaired hip was sound after the first injury — but they had received assurances from doctors that the 29-year-old had no greater risk to injure his hip again.

Those two players alone are responsible for $15.7 million in cap space with Rice no longer on the roster and Pitta potentially unable to play again. It’s akin to having another Ngata weighing on the cap without the benefit of having either player on the field.

A third event more open for debate than the others was the second anterior cruciate ligament tear suffered by cornerback Lardarius Webb only six months after he signed a six-year, $50 million contract in 2012. Prior to his second ACL injury in less than three years, Webb was emerging as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, receiving the fourth-highest grade of all players at his position from Pro Football Focus in 2011.

Few would argue that Webb has ever been the same since then and injuries are surely part of the game, but it was also terrible luck when he had just become one of the highest paid players on the roster. If he had continued on his pre-injury track, the Ravens would likely be able to live with his $12 million cap figure for the 2015 season and their concerns at the corner position would be less severe. Instead, they’re facing the possibility of cutting him and further depleting a position that was Baltimore’s Achilles heel in 2014.

No team — good or bad — is immune to making mistakes as there will always be signings and draft picks that don’t work out, but the three events outlined above have contributed to the Ravens’ worst predicament in several years despite the NFL’s salary cap increasing by $20 million over the last two offseasons.

This isn’t meant as an excuse for Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens as they’ll find a way to make additions to the roster, but it’s a simple reality to keep in mind as you brace for the start of free agency and what figures to be a difficult series of departures.

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Ravens’ cap issues linger as free-agent negotiating window opens

Posted on 07 March 2015 by Luke Jones

With the start of free agency only days away, the Ravens still have work to do to improve a tight salary-cap situation that threatens to hinder their ability to not only re-sign their own free agents but to add outside talent to the roster.

On Saturday, teams were allowed to enter contract negotiations with the certified agents of other NFL teams’ unrestricted free agents, but they are not allowed to complete a deal until 4 p.m. Tuesday when free agency officially begins. Of course, the reality is that teams and agents have been talking through back channels for weeks — February’s scouting combine in Indianapolis has long been considered a tampering haven — and a number of deals will be all but official before Tuesday afternoon.

The Ravens are currently just $4.639 million under the salary cap, resources that will be exhausted when they tender their list of restricted and exclusive-rights free agents by Tuesday’s deadline.

Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and cornerback Lardarius Webb remain the two biggest names who will impact the salary cap as the Ravens continue to try to rework their existing deals. Carrying a $16 million cap figure in the final season of his five-year, $61 million contract, Ngata is expected to be released if the Ravens cannot work out an extension by Tuesday and there have been no indications that a deal is close to happening. Cutting the five-time Pro Bowl selection would save $8.5 million in savings while leaving $7.5 million in dead money on the 2015 salary cap.

Webb’s situation is more complex as he carries a $12 million cap figure and the Ravens would like him to accept a cut from the $8 million base salary he’s owed for 2015. Cutting the 29-year-old would result in only $2 million in savings — in addition to further weakening the cornerback position — unless the Ravens designate him a post-June 1 release, which would mean his cap figure would remain on the books until long after most free-agent activity is already over.

Of course, the Ravens could make other cap-saving releases after parting ways with veterans Jacoby Jones and Chris Canty in the last two weeks. Other potential casualties include center Gino Gradkowski, linebacker Albert McClellan, and punter Sam Koch.

But the entire offseason remains in a holding pattern until resolutions are found with both Ngata and Webb.

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Will Webb accept pay cut to remain with Ravens?

Posted on 04 March 2015 by Luke Jones

With veteran Lardarius Webb carrying the sixth-highest salary cap figure among NFL cornerbacks, it’s hardly surprising that the Ravens are asking him to take a pay cut.

Whether he accepts is the question as the NFL Network reported Tuesday that Baltimore has officially asked the 29-year-old defensive back to take less than his $8 million base salary for the 2015 season. Webb carries a $12 million cap figure, which is just behind the likes of Dallas’ Brandon Carr ($12.717 million) and Seattle’s Richard Sherman ($12.2 million) for this coming season. Few would say that Webb belongs in that category of players as injuries have stunted a player who once played at a Pro Bowl level before suffering the second anterior cruciate ligament tear of his NFL career during the 2012 season.

A back injury cost Webb all of last year’s training camp and three of the first four games of the regular season before he struggled to regain his pre-injury form the rest of the way, finishing 52nd among cornerbacks who took at least half of his team’s snaps in Pro Football Focus’ grading system. The 2009 third-round pick will be 30 in October and signed a six-year, $50 million contract prior to the 2012 season.

It remains unclear how much less the Ravens are asking Webb to take, but the question for him is whether he thinks another team would give him more than the revised salary general manager Ozzie Newsome is offering. It was roughly six months ago that the Ravens restructured Webb’s contract for the 2014 season, flipping $4 million of his $7.5 million base salary into a bonus and reducing his cap figure. Of course, that adjustment came with the consequence of adding $1 million to his cap figure in each of the next three seasons.

The request of a pay cut is almost always accompanied by the consequence that a player will be released if he doesn’t accept it — no player would ever accept one if that weren’t the case — but the Ravens would save only $2 million in cap space unless they declare Webb a post-June 1 release. Such a maneuver would clear $8 million in cap space, but that relief wouldn’t come until after June 1 when the bulk of free-agent activity has already concluded.

If Newsome believes he can find another comparable veteran — Cary Williams was released on Tuesday — at the same salary or for less than what they’re currently offering Webb, the decision to release him becomes much easier. But they also know cornerback is a major priority and they will already be looking to select one in the early rounds of this year’s draft.

The Ravens can certainly use the cap savings, but they would come with more uncertainty in the secondary if Webb were to be sent packing after six years in Baltimore.

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