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Series of unfortunate events led to Ravens’ 2015 cap woes

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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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McPhee reportedly set to sign $40 million contract with Chicago

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McPhee reportedly set to sign $40 million contract with Chicago

Posted on 09 March 2015 by Luke Jones

Of all the Ravens’ free agents scheduled to officially hit the market on Tuesday, linebacker Pernell McPhee was always considered the least likely to return.

It appears McPhee has found a new home with the Chicago Bears by agreeing to a five-year, $40 million contract that includes roughly $16 million guaranteed, according to multiple reports. The deal won’t become official until after the start of the new league year on Tuesday afternoon.

Despite playing in less than half of the Ravens’ defensive snaps in 2014 while backing up outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, McPhee emerged as one of the most efficient pass rushers in the NFL by finishing with 7.5 sacks in 540 snaps. The 26-year-old earned the highest grade of any Baltimore defensive player in 2014 from Pro Football Focus and received the website’s second-highest grade of any 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL behind Kansas City’s Justin Houston.

With the Ravens dealing with salary cap woes and having a number of other positions to address, McPhee was considered a luxury the organization would not be able to afford. The 2011 fifth-round pick is just the latest in a long list of young defensive players in Baltimore to find significant paydays elsewhere as others to depart in recent offseasons include linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe and defensive tackle Arthur Jones.

“If we were to go after the market on Pernell, how many other players would we not have on the Baltimore Ravens? That’s kind of the way we look at this thing,” general manager Ozzie Newsome said last month. “We have to look at how we can’t pay everybody market value, because it would hurt our roster overall in trying to retain other guys and then go out in the market and get other guys.”

Though listed as an outside linebacker, McPhee displays unique versatility as he was able to consistently pressure quarterbacks while lining up inside or outside along the defensive line. According to PFF, he led the Ravens with 35 quarterback hurries and 21 quarterback hits during the 2014 season.

It will be interesting to see how the Bears handle McPhee’s workload as the Mississippi State product has battled knee issues at various times during his career, which led the Ravens to be mindful about managing his reps in both practices and games. Chicago head coach John Fox likely has an expanded role in mind for McPhee with the organization making such a steep financial commitment.

In 60 career games with the Ravens, McPhee accumulated 92 tackles, 17 sacks, seven pass breakups, and three forced fumbles.

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Replacing Torrey Smith even more difficult than saying goodbye

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Replacing Torrey Smith even more difficult than saying goodbye

Posted on 09 March 2015 by Luke Jones

The reasons why it’s difficult to say goodbye to Torrey Smith go far beyond receiving yards and touchdown catches for the Ravens and the city of Baltimore.

Others have played better and longer for a franchise approaching its 20th season in Charm City, but few have left the kind of impression the 26-year-old wide receiver did in his four seasons with the Ravens. His heartfelt farewell released Sunday night only scratches the surface in revealing the man as both a football player and, more importantly, a citizen who’s made a difference in the community — and will apparently continue to do so with his stated intention of continuing to make Baltimore his offseason home.

From the heartbreaking — but inspirational — story of his upbringing in Virginia to his days with Ralph Friedgen at the University of Maryland, Smith has grown up before our eyes in some ways. We watched him handle the tragedy of his younger brother’s death with courage and grace while excelling on the field and ultimately helping the Ravens taste the glory that was two division titles, three playoff appearances, and a win in Super Bowl XLVII.

But it can be a cruel business as the Ravens have deemed Smith’s price tag too expensive — a difficult salary-cap picture certainly didn’t help — and the 2011 second-round selection is seizing his first and best chance to receive a lucrative payday elsewhere. You can understand general manager Ozzie Newsome’s decision to walk away from a player who never lived up to the billing of becoming a true No. 1 receiver in the same way that you can respect Smith not being willing to leave millions of dollars on the table in a sport that only guarantees so much.

Even with that common ground of understanding for both sides, it doesn’t change the reality of the Ravens needing to replace Smith on the field.

It’s going to be difficult.

His critics frequently bring up his shortcomings and reiterate that he isn’t a true No. 1 wideout, but those weaknesses shouldn’t sell short his talents as a strong No. 2 option who has suited the strong-armed Joe Flacco perfectly over the last four seasons. His ability to both stretch the field and make big plays shouldn’t be discredited because of a disappointing 2014 season that still included a career-best 11 touchdown catches.

It isn’t only about speed as fast but limited receivers such as Jacoby Jones, Yamon Figurs, and Patrick Johnson have proven over the years. Even if his route-running and hands aren’t as consistent as you’d like, Smith has shown much more talent than straight-line speed.

The six-foot, 205-pound receiver finishes his four-year run in Baltimore ranking third on the franchise’s all-time list in receiving yards and second in touchdown catches, numbers that bring two distinct thoughts to mind. One, he’s been one of the most productive receivers in team history despite having only played four seasons. Second, it reflects how little success Newsome and the Ravens have found at the position in nearly two decades.

And that’s where the real concern lies as Smith represents the franchise’s only significant success story in drafting and developing an impact wide receiver. They finally hit in 2011, but the Ravens have selected a laundry list of disappointments or outright busts at the position that includes Johnson, Travis Taylor, Ron Johnson, Devard Darling, Mark Clayton, Demetrius Williams, Figurs, Marcus Smith, David Reed, and Tandon Doss.

Yuck.

To be fair, Newsome has found success over the years in plucking veterans off the market including Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and, most recently, Steve Smith, but a few duds have been mixed in there as well in Lee Evans, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Kevin Johnson. Of course, Newsome has been one of the best executives in the NFL for almost 20 years and no organization bats 1.000, but the Ravens have routinely been lacking at the receiver position and that’s without even mentioning the decision to dump Boldin two offseasons ago without replacing him for the 2013 season.

Yes, I know that dead horse doesn’t need to be beaten again.

There might be enough of a track record to trust Newsome to at least find a respectable veteran band-aid — Houston’s Andre Johnson would provide more than that if the cost is within the Ravens’ modest means this offseason — but finding a vertical threat as effective as Smith won’t be as easy. The goal is improving the passing game — not treading water or getting slightly worse — and veteran free-agent options such as Michael Crabtree, Cecil Shorts, Eddie Royal, and Nate Washington hardly make you do cartwheels and won’t all be cheap, either.

Not having a vertical threat for Flacco is akin to asking a home-run hitter to try to settle for more singles and doubles. It doesn’t mean he won’t succeed, but you’re not going to maximize your return.

Maybe the Ravens will hit on a future No. 1 receiver with the 26th overall pick in this year’s draft, but their track record suggests finding Torrey Smith’s replacement won’t be that simple and Steve Smith will be 36 this year. The organization is optimistic about its young receivers like Kamar Aiken, Michael Campanaro, Marlon Brown, and Jeremy Butler, but none have shown enough ability to reasonably project a starting role without a major drop-off.

You can understand and respect the Ravens needing to make a difficult financial decision in watching Torrey Smith depart. Newsome has six months to figure it out before the 2015 season kicks off, so it would be silly to push the panic button now.
But there have been too many failures and not enough successes at the wide receiver position over the years to feel great about what will come next.

You just hope the Ravens won’t take as long replacing Torrey Smith as they did to find him.

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Cobb deal puts Torrey Smith in prime position on open market

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Cobb deal puts Torrey Smith in prime position on open market

Posted on 08 March 2015 by Luke Jones

Saturday was a productive night for free-agent wide receiver Torrey Smith and brought the latest signal supporting his expected departure from the Ravens.

With the news of star wideout Randall Cobb agreeing to a four-year, $40 million contract to remain with the Green Bay Packers, Smith will only see the demand for his services rise around the league with a top free-agent receiver now off the board.  The 26-year-old Smith and Philadelphia wide receiver Jeremy Maclin are considered the top talents who will officially hit the market on 4 p.m. Tuesday for the start of free agency.

With Baltimore currently holding just $4.639 million in salary cap space, Smith is expected to find a home elsewhere with the San Francisco 49ers reportedly leading the race for the speedy receiver’s services. According to CBS Sports, the 2011 first-round pick turned down a five-year, $35 million contract prior to the 2014 season, a move that now looks wise despite a disappointing campaign in which he caught just 49 passes for 767 yards.

Despite both sides repeatedly expressing hope that they’d continue their relationship, the Ravens’ brass seemed to go out of its way to prepare fans for Smith’s departure late last month with owner Steve Bisciotti even taking a shot at the lucrative $60 million contract the Miami Dolphins gave wide receiver Mike Wallace two offseasons ago.

“Let’s be frank: Do you hope that Torrey doesn’t break the bank out in the open market so that we can get him for our number? That’s a hard thing to say,” Bisciotti said. “I care about the kid. I want him to maximize his earnings. At the same time, the more successful he is at doing that, the less success we have in retaining him. I don’t like to stand up here and say I’m rooting against the guy, but we’ve got to find a number.”

And that number is expected to be too rich with Cobb now off the market and a number of teams looking for an impact wide receiver in free agency.

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

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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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Former Ravens return specialist Jones joining San Diego

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Former Ravens return specialist Jones joining San Diego

Posted on 06 March 2015 by Luke Jones

Former Ravens kick returner and wide receiver Jacoby Jones has found a new home on the West Coast.

Jones has agreed to a two-year deal to join the San Diego Chargers, who were looking for a more explosive option as a return specialist. The 30-year-old was released by the Ravens last week, a move that saved $750,000 on their salary cap for the 2015 season.

“One of our off-season goals was to improve our special teams, specifically upgrading our return game,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said in a statement. “We feel Jacoby brings a dynamic aspect to our kick and punt returns that we need, and he also has solid experience playing wide receiver.”

Originally signed by the Ravens in 2012, Jones earned a trip to the Pro Bowl that year and finished with a 30.1-yard kickoff return average over his three-year run in Baltimore, the best mark in franchise history. He scored six total touchdowns on returns with the Ravens.

Jones and the Chargers are scheduled to visit M&T Bank Stadium to take on the Ravens during the 2015 regular season.

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Jarret Johnson to sign one-day contract to retire with Ravens

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Jarret Johnson to sign one-day contract to retire with Ravens

Posted on 04 March 2015 by Luke Jones

After announcing his retirement from the NFL last week, Jarret Johnson is coming home to officially finish his career where it started.

The former Ravens linebacker will sign a one-day contract to retire with the organization that selected him in the fourth round of the 2003 draft. The 33-year-old Johnson spent nine years in Baltimore and was one of the most respected players in franchise history for his toughness and durability as he played in 129 consecutive games to conclude his Ravens career — once a franchise record — before departing to sign with the San Diego Chargers in 2012.

Johnson’s departure from the Ravens was amicable but difficult as he saw his former team go on to win Super Bowl XLVII while he spent his first season in San Diego. Though not as flashy on the field as former teammates such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, the University of Alabama product earned the respect of Ravens fans for his blue-collar approach while becoming a permanent starter in 2007.

He finished his run in Baltimore with 382 tackles, 20 sacks, three interceptions, and nine forced fumbles in nine seasons in addition to setting a franchise record for consecutive games played that was surpassed by punter Sam Koch this past year.

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Will Webb accept pay cut to remain with Ravens?

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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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Cary Williams could be solid veteran option for Ravens

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Cary Williams could be solid veteran option for Ravens

Posted on 03 March 2015 by Luke Jones

Two years after signing a three-year, $17 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, former Ravens cornerback Cary Williams was released on Tuesday, leading to immediate speculation of a potential reunion in Baltimore.

The Ravens’ issues at cornerback last season were no secret and Williams left the organization with no ill feelings two offseasons ago, making it plausible that the sides could reconcile at the right price. Williams, 30, is coming off a season in which he struggled for the Eagles’ 31st-ranked passing game, but the Ravens could view him as a nice veteran insurance policy while still aiming to add a cornerback for the future in the first few rounds of this year’s draft.

Williams has started all 16 games in each of his last four seasons and transformed himself from a former practice-squad member and special-teams player to a starting cornerback for the Super Bowl XLVII champions. The Ravens offered Williams a three-year, $15 million contract prior to his final year in Baltimore, but the Washburn College product elected to play out the 2012 season before accepting a better offer from the Eagles a little over a month after the Super Bowl.

Though the Ravens would ideally view Williams as a No. 3 cornerback, the status of veteran Lardarius Webb could change that as Baltimore tries to restructure his contract currently slated to carry a $12 million cap figure during the 2015 season. If general manager Ozzie Newsome were to part ways with Webb to clear cap space, a veteran like Williams could become even more attractive as the Ravens would want to avoid entering the draft needing a cornerback to start immediately.

Opinionated and sometimes brash on the field, Williams butted heads with Chip Kelly over how much the Eagles head coach was making players work during practices last fall, but the Ravens’ familiarity with the veteran defensive back might give them an advantage over other potential suitors who might be scared off by his attitude.

Ultimately, such a reunion would come down to money more than anything else as the Eagles cut Williams before he was scheduled to make $6.5 million in base salary this coming season. He would need to take substantially less in any potential return to the place where he established himself as an NFL-caliber cornerback.

Given the Ravens’ need at the position, turning to a durable and known commodity who’s already familiar with Dean Pees’ system would appear to be a solid short-term option while they could look to the draft to find a cornerback of the future.

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Ravens pass on using franchise tag for 2015 season

Posted on 02 March 2015 by Luke Jones

As expected, the Ravens elected not to use the franchise tag on any player for the 2015 season.

Limited salary-cap space and the lack of an ideal candidate made it a foregone conclusion that the Ravens would not use the franchise or transition tag on any player before Monday’s 4 p.m. deadline. This marks the third consecutive offseason in which the Ravens have not used the designation with former running back Ray Rice being the last Baltimore player to be tagged in 2012.

The five NFL players to be designated as his team’s franchise player were Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston, Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant, New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski, and New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Miami tight end Charles Clay was given the transition tag, which is cheaper than the franchise tag but only gives the Dolphins the right to match any offer sheet to which Clay might be signed by another team and does not award them two first-round picks like the non-exclusive franchise tag does.

A look ahead to next offseason provides a pair of intriguing franchise tag candidates in cornerback Jimmy Smith and kicker Justin Tucker. For a frame of reference, the franchise tag for a cornerback is $13.075 million this season while the tag for a kicker is set at $4.126 million.

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