SCHOOL DELAYS

Who will stay and who will go? Ravens need to make tough decisions to rebuild aging roster

Ravens need to make decisions on slew of players as they rebuild aging roster.

The Ravens' top decision makers will head to owner Steve Bisciotti's Florida home later this month to begin to formulate a plan for a crucial offseason. The recently concluded 8-8 campaign revealed a team not quite good enough to beat the NFL's best and in need of upgrades on both sides of the ball.

General manager Ozzie Newsome and the team's front office will face several challenges in trying to rebuild an aging roster. Eight of the 10 players with the highest 2017 salary cap numbers are age 30 or older.

Five starters are unrestricted free agents and that doesn't include top wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., who has retired. In an offseason where the salary cap will again go up and a slew of teams have an abundance of space, the Ravens could gain some cap flexibility, but they'll still have to be frugal spenders.

While nobody foresees a total roster teardown, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh summed it up best Tuesday, when he said, "Everything is on the table. Absolutely, everything has to be on the table, in terms of how we can improve. The financial part of it is a big piece of it."

Free agency doesn't start until March 9 and it will be some time before the Ravens make their lion's share of moves, but it's never too early to project the organization's major free agent/roster decisions.

Edge rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil

The team's pass rush faded this year as only six NFL teams finished with fewer than the Ravens' 31 sacks. Suggs, 34, and Dumervil, who turns 33 this month, still can get after the quarterback, but their days as elite every-down rushers are probably over. The Ravens, who drafted two pass rushers last April, figure to add one or two more this offseason to prepare for life after Suggs and Dumervil.

Suggs said he plans on being back in 2017 and his contract suggests that's likely. The Ravens would save a little over $1 million by releasing him before June 1, which seemingly isn't enough to justify jettisoning a still effective performer, a defensive leader and one of the best players in franchise history.

Moving on from Dumervil, though, would net $6 million in savings. With nine sacks over the past two seasons and about a year removed from Achilles surgery, Dumervil could become the team's highest-profile salary cap casualty.

Asked about his future with the team after he cleared out his locker last week, Dumervil said, "I got one year left on the deal. That's where it's at right now."

Tight ends Dennis Pitta and Benjamin Watson

Last offseason, the Ravens prioritized adding tight end depth. This year, they're going to have to figure out how many tight ends they can afford to keep. Their roster includes six tight ends and four of them — Crockett Gillmore, Darren Waller, Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams — are on their rookie deals.

Pitta took a pay cut last year to stay with the team and mount a comeback from a twice fractured and dislocated right hip. The comeback was a major success as he played in all 16 games and led the team and all NFL tight ends with 86 catches. However, Pitta is 31 years old and isn't a significant downfield threat. His $7.7 million salary cap hit is steep for a player who remains a health risk. It's tough to envision Pitta back on his current deal with the team, but the two sides should be able to work something out.

As for Watson, the Ravens signed him to a two-year, $7 million deal last March but he tore his Achilles in the preseason and missed the whole year. The Ravens would create $3 million in cap room by cutting him or they can hold off and take a leap of faith that Watson, at 36 years old and coming off a serious injury, will still be a productive tight end when healthy.

Nose tackle Brandon Williams and other unrestricted free agents

Williams is one of the game's best nose tackles and a key cog in the Ravens usually formidable run defense. Durable, motivated, well-respected in the locker room and well-liked in the community, Williams is exactly the type of ascending player Newsome likes to sign to a second contract. But can the Ravens afford him?

The top interior free agent run stuffer last offseason, Damon Harrison was rewarded with a five-year, $46.25 million deal ($24 million guaranteed) from the New York Giants. With prices going up, Williams figures to get at least that and that could become prohibitive for the Ravens.

Asked last week whether he'd take a hometown discount to stay, the affable nose tackle said, "Hey, my hometown is St. Louis."

Williams will be the Ravens' priority over a group of free agents that also includes starting right tackle Rick Wagner, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, wide receiver Kamar Aiken and defensive end Lawrence Guy. Those four could return if the price is right, but there will probably be more money available to them elsewhere.

Wide receiver Mike Wallace

It seems like a no-brainer to keep Wallace, who probably exceeded expectations after the Ravens signed him last offseason. Wallace had over 1,000 receiving yards and with Smith retiring and Aiken potentially leaving in free agency, he's really the only accomplished veteran wide receiver the Ravens have.

However, his $8 million salary cap hit is the fifth highest on the team and the Ravens would save almost $6 million by letting him walk. The decision depends on how executives and coaches perceive Wallace and his importance to the team.

If they think they could find a free agent receiver with similar ability at a much cheaper price, Wallace could be one-and-done in Baltimore. But it would be foolish to let him go without adding a replacement.

Center Jeremy Zuttah

Like with Wallace, this decision will come down to whether team officials believe it can find a cheaper or better alternative. Internal option John Urschel could be that guy or the Ravens could find a center in the draft, making Zuttah expendable.

Zuttah's $4.6 million cap hit is manageable, but he's struggled the past two years and the Ravens have made improving their offensive line one of their offseason priorities. With Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis entrenched at the guard spots and Ronnie Stanley at left tackle, center is one of the spots that could be upgraded.

Cutting Zuttah would create $2.4 million in cap savings.

Lardarius Webb and veteran defensive backs

The Ravens' secondary will have a different look next season. Jerraud Powers, Matt Elam and Anthony Levine Sr. are all unrestricted free agents and Levine, a reserve safety and special teams standout, seems the most likely to return from that group.

Cornerbacks Shareece Wright and Kyle Arrington (who missed all of 2016 with a concussion) are prime candidates to be released, and those moves would save the Ravens a little more than $4.5 million in cap space combined. Releasing safety Kendrick Lewis also would create nearly $2 million in cap savings.

But the big question is the status of Webb, who made the transition from cornerback to safety this past season and got significantly better as the season wore on. Webb is 31 and carries a $7.5 million cap hit. The Ravens may be forced to absorb it unless they're able to add another safety to play alongside Eric Weddle. Their current roster has no experienced and preferred options at that spot.

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
37°