OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are in a holding pattern with franchise quarterback Joe Flacco continuing to rest his ailing back.
The concern is hardly dire yet with the season opener still six weeks away, but that could change if the 32-year-old doesn’t respond favorably to the rest and treatment he’s receiving over the first week of training camp. Back injuries can be complicated and often linger if not handled carefully, making it wise for the Ravens to take their time with their most important player.
Of course, that hasn’t slowed the red-hot discussion about whether Baltimore should sign polarizing quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who remains unemployed despite clearly possessing the talent to play in a league that lacks quality signal-callers. Over the last two days, head coach John Harbaugh has heaped plenty of praise on Kaepernick, who played for his brother and Ravens senior offensive assistant Greg Roman in San Francisco.
But it’s complicated.
“We’ll just see how it plays out. It has to do with our need,” Harbaugh said. “Joe is day to day. Do we really need to make that move or not? That’s the decision that really has to be made. There are a lot of layers to it, just from a football standpoint. I’ll focus on the football part.
“If there are other layers to it, then that’s taken into consideration at the appropriate level.”
Those other layers are very relevant from a business standpoint and primarily concern owner Steve Bisciotti and team president Dick Cass, but let’s focus on football, roster construction, and the salary cap. Your opinion on the non-football part of the discussion is unlikely to be swayed at this point anyway, whether you’re pounding the desk for him to be wearing purple or threatening to cancel your season tickets over his potential signing.
The newly-signed David Olson is irrelevant to this debate. Harbaugh said Thursday that the Ravens needed to add a camp “arm” immediately, and Olson merely assumed the reps that assistant coach Matt Weiss was forced to take because there were only two healthy quarterbacks on the field for Thursday’s full-squad practice involving a total of 85 players. The former arena quarterback isn’t replacing Flacco or backup Ryan Mallett and didn’t take a potential spot from Kaepernick, either.
That brings us to Mallett. In a vacuum, Kaepernick is the better quarterback who brings much more experience to the table. The incumbent backup possesses a similar skill set to Flacco that does make for an easy short-term transition from a schematic standpoint, but the Ravens also employed Tyrod Taylor as their backup for four years, making you think a difference in style shouldn’t be a major deterrent with all things being equal.
But Mallett was just signed to a one-year, $2 million contract with a $1 million signing bonus at the start of free agency back in March, which suggests they at least had a comfort level in him as a backup less than five months ago. You can fairly question the wisdom in re-signing him so quickly if they’re no longer enamored with his performance, which has been poor over the first couple days of camp.
According to the NFL Players Association, the Ravens currently have $6.881 million in salary cap space, a number that will shrink at the end of the preseason when the Rule of 51 no longer applies and teams must fit their entire 53-man roster, their players on injured reserve, and their 10-man practice squad under the cap. In other words, the Ravens do not have much flexibility right now and will still need a “rainy day” fund when other roster needs arise over the duration of the season.
Signing Kaepernick and cutting Mallett — assuming the Ravens would continue their current eight-year trend of entering a season with just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster — would leave $1 million of dead money on the cap. In other words, the Ravens would need to add that amount to whatever they would give Kaepernick, making his salary expectations quite relevant to this discussion. His ability suggests that he should be worth much more, but we know how his story has played out throughout the offseason and we don’t know if he would accept the veteran minimum or a little more than that.
As it stands, general manager Ozzie Newsome maybe has one moderate signing he can make without having to restructure veteran contracts and impacting future cap years. With so much concern along the offensive line as well as questions at other positions such as tight end and running back, should improving the backup quarterback spot really be a top priority? If there are questions about the offense with Flacco under center, would you rather have Kaepernick standing on the sideline as an insurance policy or add another offensive lineman that’s going to see the field and better protect a quarterback whose health is potentially in question?
Of course, that brings us back to the current holding pattern.
If the Ravens are more concerned about Flacco’s long-term availability going into the regular season than they’re currently indicating, Kaepernick makes plenty of sense. In a worst-case scenario, Roman could dust off some zone-read packages from his San Francisco days and allow Kaepernick to better utilize his athleticism in what would be viewed by some as a throwaway season anyway if the franchise quarterback were to be on the shelf.
If Flacco’s back is perfectly fine in a week or two, however, pumping more dollars into the quarterback position doesn’t seem like the best allocation of resources for a team desperate to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
Yes, Kaepernick is good enough to play in this league, either as a starter or as a high-quality backup. He deserves to have that opportunity somewhere.
But the timing and conditions of a potential marriage with the Ravens will be on their terms.
And that’s not even considering those other layers currently being discussed by the powers that be.