The Ravens don’t enter the winter in quite as dire straights with their salary cap as they did a year ago, but that won’t protect them from facing difficult decisions in trying to rebound from their first non-playoff season since 2007.
Entering the offseason with 37 players under contract and roughly $14 million in cap space — they’ve since signed nine players to reserve-future deals — the Ravens must take a long look at a number of potential veteran cuts that would bring needed room to not only re-sign some of their own free agents but allow them to explore outside possibilities to improve a roster that finished 8-8 in 2013.
The biggest and most intriguing name on the list will be Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs, who is entering the final year of a six-year, $62.5 million contract and has spent 11 years with the organization that selected him in the first round of the 2003 draft. Deciding his status will be at the top of general manager Ozzie Newsome’s list of internal priorities before turning his efforts toward augmenting the roster for 2014.
A name that won’t be on the list of possible cap casualties is running back Ray Rice, who is coming off the worst season of his career and has often been mentioned by fans as someone the Ravens shouldn’t bring back. Though Rice’s 2014 cap figure of $8.75 million is way too high for a running back who averaged only 3.1 yards per carry and gained just 660 yards, his release prior to June 1 would cost $14.25 million in dead money toward the 2014 cap. In other words, cutting Rice would actually be more expensive to the Ravens’ 2014 cap than keeping him for another season.
The three-time Pro Bowl running back isn’t going anywhere in 2014.
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 jumping 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 pre-June 1 cap savings noted in parentheses), in order from most likely to least likely:
1. FB Vonta Leach ($1.75 million)
Skinny: The fate of the three-time Pro Bowl fullback is the easiest to predict as this move is about football as much as it is finances. The Ravens abandoned the two-back system early in the season as their running game struggled and wouldn’t figure to be willing to pay Leach his $1.75 million base salary in 2014 after he rarely played more than a handful of offensive snaps per game in the final 2 1/2 months of 2013. Even if the Ravens elect to emphasize the fullback more often in their offensive approach for 2014, Kyle Juszczyk or another cheaper option will be preferred to Leach, who sees the writing on the wall in terms of his future in Baltimore.
2. LB Jameel McClain ($3.2 million)
Skinny: The Ravens cut McClain’s 2013 base salary in half while he worked his way back from a spinal cord contusion, so you wonder how willing he would be to accept another pay cut to remain in Baltimore. The free-agent status of veteran Daryl Smith makes this decision more compelling as the Ravens could use the money saved on McClain toward a new contract for Smith, who played well at Mike linebacker in Dean Pees’ system. With younger and cheaper options such as 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown and Josh Bynes on the roster, it only makes sense for the Ravens to look into lowering McClain’s salary if not deciding to cut him altogether as he enters the final season of a three-year contract.
3. P Sam Koch ($1.6 million)
Skinny: Serving as Baltimore’s punter since 2006, Koch is one of the longest-tenured players on the team, but his $2.8 million cap figure for 2014 is the 10th-highest among players currently under contract for 2014. He did rebound down the stretch after a subpar start to the season, but the Ravens have to think they can go younger and cheaper than the league’s 22nd-ranked net punter in 2013. Of course, cutting Koch wouldn’t make it impossible to bring him back at a reduced rate if he was agreeable to doing so, but finding an effective punter in the latter stages of the draft or in rookie free agency shouldn’t be too impossible of a task.
4. LB Terrell Suggs ($7.8 million)
Skinny: The only reason that Suggs isn’t higher on the list is the likelihood of the Ravens exploring a short-term extension to lower his projected $12.4 million cap figure for 2014. Suggs’ poor second half in 2013 raises concerns about giving more money to a player who will be 32 in October, and the Ravens need to think carefully about making commitments to players for past accomplishments instead of future production. It’s difficult to say whether Suggs’ disappointing second half — only one sack in the final eight games — was the result of an injury or simply wearing down, but the Ravens might be wise to part with him a year early instead of possibly a season too late. It would be hard to walk away from a franchise player and a pass rusher with 94 1/2 career sacks if you think he has plenty left, but $7.8 million in extra space can help accomplish much in an offseason. Whether they ultimately work out an extension, cut him, or somehow manage to get Suggs to agree to a straight pay cut, the Ravens aren’t expected to allow his huge cap number to go untouched.
5. DE Chris Canty ($1.83 million)
Skinny: Considering Canty is their best 5-technique defensive end and fellow defensive lineman Arthur Jones could depart via free agency, the Ravens are likely to keep the 31-year-old veteran after a solid but unspectacular first year in Baltimore. He only counts for $3.16 million on the 2014 cap and the Ravens will already be depending on younger players such as Brandon Williams and DeAngelo Tyson to fill bigger defensive roles, so Canty represents a solid option to plug into the starting lineup for at least one more season. Canty is owed a $500,000 roster bonus on the fourth day of the new league year that begins in March, so a decision on his fate would have to come before then if the Ravens are contemplating cutting him.
6. DT Haloti Ngata ($1 million)
Skinny: The five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle’s name has come up often over the last two winters, but the $1 million in savings from a potential release is dwarfed by the $15 million in dead space the Ravens would need to absorb on the 2014 cap if he were to be cut prior to June 1. It’s virtually impossible to argue that his production no longer matches the $16 million cap figure he’ll carry for 2014, but Ngata is still an above-average player that would be difficult for the Ravens to adequately replace after taking such a big cap hit. The only reason the Ravens would really consider cutting Ngata would be to save the $8.5 million in base salary he’s owed next season, but that would be a decision of saving cash over clearing cap space and not one that would help the team on the field in the coming season. It wouldn’t be impossible, but the Ravens appear very unlikely to cut Ngata this offseason.