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.