With Super Bowl XLIX now in the books and the 2014 season officially over, the Ravens are continuing to make plans for 2015 as they evaluate a tight salary cap and try to improve from a 10-6 campaign that resulted in a trip to the divisional round of the playoffs.
The NFL has yet to set the 2015 salary cap, which is projected to increase from $133 million this past season to somewhere between $138 million and $142 million for the upcoming year. That’s good news for the Ravens as they currently own a commitment of over $137 million for players currently under contract, per Spotrac.com.
With a slew of key free agents to address as well as visions of trying to improve other areas of the roster, general manager Ozzie Newsome will face some difficult decisions pertaining to several veterans on the roster. That begins and ends with five-time Pro Bowl selection Haloti Ngata, who is entering the final season of a five-year, $61 million deal signed in 2011. Easily one of the best players in franchise history, the 31-year-old defensive tackle finds himself in a similar position to the one Terrell Suggs was in last year before he signed a contract extension to lower his 2014 cap figure.
A name not included on the list of potential cap casualties below is tight end Dennis Pitta, whose $4 million base salary for 2015 is guaranteed. It remains unclear whether Pitta will play football again after suffering two serious hip injuries in two years, but cutting him this offseason would increase his cap figure for 2015.
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 are 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. DE Chris Canty ($2.66 million)
Skinny: The 32-year-old may take this decision out of the Ravens’ hands as he acknowledged at the end of the season that he’s contemplating retirement. Injuries limited his production in 2014, and the Ravens will likely push to re-sign the underrated Lawrence Guy while looking toward young defensive linemen Brent Urban and Kapron Lewis-Moore to be factors at Canty’s 5-technique defensive end spot. With so many other pressing needs elsewhere and a few younger options at this position, Canty returning would be more of a luxury than a necessity for next season, making it likely that he’s played his final game with Baltimore.
2. WR Jacoby Jones ($750,000)
Skinny: On the surface, the minimal savings gained by cutting the return specialist now wouldn’t appear worth it, but you have to wonder where Jones fits after falling behind the likes of Marlon Brown and Kamar Aiken on the depth chart and not appearing as explosive in the return game in 2014. A possible strategy would be to designate Jones as a post-June 1 cut, which would create $2.5 million in savings for the summer and autumn when the Ravens need a “rainy day” fund to account for injuries. The only problem with that strategy is his scheduled 2015 cap number of $3.375 million staying on the books during the first few months of free agency, but it just doesn’t feel like there’s a place for Jones moving forward.
3. LB Albert McClellan ($1 million)
Skinny: A core member of Jerry Rosburgh’s special teams units over the last few years, McClellan has been a reliable player, but other young inside linebackers such as Arthur Brown and Zachary Orr are cheaper and should be ready to handle more responsibility. Of course, we’re not talking about a great deal of savings here, but veteran special-teams players are typically among the first to go when teams are dealing with cap pains.
4. P Sam Koch ($2.5 million)
Skinny: Many assumed Koch would be a cap casualty last year with his high price tag for a punter, but the Ravens value his ability a great deal and regard him as one of the best in the NFL. That said, Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker is a restricted free agent and will be looking for a long-term contract over the next 12 months. If Koch is willing to sign a team-friendly extension to lower his cap number, the Ravens would be more than happy to keep him around, but they probably can’t afford to pay their kicker and punter in the top 10 at their respective positions. Entering the final year of his contract, Koch is more likely to be a casualty this year than he was last offseason.
5. DT Haloti Ngata ($8.5 million)
Skinny: The only certainty is that the longtime Raven won’t be playing for his scheduled $16 million cap figure. Whether that means he signs an extension like Suggs or is cut remains to be seen. Ngata’s 2014 season was his best in a few years, but his four-game suspension for Adderall use allowed the Ravens to take an extended look at 2014 second-round pick Timmy Jernigan, who played very well in the 31-year-old’s absence. The sides talked about an extension last season with little progress, so it will be interesting to see how motivated Ngata is to make amends for his suspension and finish his career in Baltimore. The Ravens must be smart as it’s typically unwise to throw money at defensive linemen on the wrong side of 30.
6. CB Lardarius Webb ($2 million)
Skinny: It was a disappointing year for the 29-year-old after he missed all of training camp and three of the first four games of the season with a back injury. Since suffering the second anterior cruciate ligament tear of his career in 2012, Webb has looked like nothing better than average, which is problematic when he’s carrying a $12 million cap figure for 2015. However, cutting him this winter would only save $2 million and create less depth at a position where the Ravens are already looking to improve. Newsome may ask Webb to take a pay cut, but it’s difficult envisioning the Ravens depleting their depth at cornerback further — even if he’s no more than average at this point — by cutting him outright for minimal savings.