The NFL's annual offseason free agent spending spree won't officially get underway until March 11, but the Ravens will have a $6.7 million decision to make within the next couple of weeks.
Or is it an $11.5 million decision?
The Ravens' evaluation of whether to use the franchise tag on tight end Dennis Pitta is complicated by the uncertainty of exactly how much it would cost. Would Pitta fall under the franchise tag number for a tight end or a wide receiver, a difference of nearly $5 million?
A similar debate is playing out in New Orleans, where the Saints might be forced to apply the franchise tag to their star tight end Jimmy Graham. If they do, it's widely assumed that Graham's agent will file a grievance through the NFL Players Association, maintaining that Graham, who often lines up in the slot or out wide, should be tagged as a receiver ($11.5 million) not as a tight end ($6.7 million). An arbitrator would then rule on the matter after a hearing.
Pitta, 28, would have a similar case. He ran 79.7 percent of his routes last year out of the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. That was the highest rate among qualifying tight ends.
"The whole grievance aspect would scare me," said former NFL agent Joel Corry, who analyzes contracts and the salary cap for National Football Post. "You never know what's going to be persuasive with the arbitrator. The team could think they're on solid ground but the arbitrator might look at it differently. I wouldn't want to take my chances on that decision. You really want to get that thing done, get [Pitta] on a long-term deal. That's the safest course of action."
The two-week window for teams to franchise potential free agents starts Monday and continues through March 3. In franchising Pitta, the Ravens would ensure that the tight end didn't hit the free agent market, where he'd undoubtedly have his share of suitors, and buy themselves some time to reach a long-term contract extension with one of quarterback Joe Flacco's favorite targets.
If the Ravens franchise Pitta, they'd have until July 15 to negotiate an extension with him. That's the goal of both sides as Pitta has made it clear that he wants to remain in Baltimore while the Ravens want the same. However to this point, the two sides haven't made substantial progress in contract talks per a source, which could put the franchise tag in play.
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said last month that it was "possible" that the team would franchise Pitta, but that obviously wouldn't be ideal for the tight end, who wouldn't get the long-term security that he seeks, or for the Ravens, who have several holes and not a whole lot of salary cap space to address them. The Ravens currently have just under $12 million of cap room and that's before they've executed deals with their exclusive rights and restricted free agents.
However, they're expected to gain some room after extending rush linebacker Terrell Suggs to a deal, which will become official Monday.
If Pitta had to play the season under either franchise tag, that would significantly limit the Ravens' financial flexibility to sign a couple of their other unrestricted free agents, a group that includes wide receiver Jacoby Jones, left tackle Eugene Monroe and middle linebacker Daryl Smith.
"Going forward, we would like to have Dennis on our football team," Newsome said last month. "... There are no guarantees. [That's] one thing about this business. We wanted [Paul] Kruger and [Dannell] Ellerbe back last year and we weren't able to keep them."
New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak also expressed optimism that Pitta will be back and acknowledged that the tight end position has always been a big part of the offense that he likes to run.
Pitta returned from a fractured and dislocated right hip last season to play four games and remind the Ravens of his importance to their offense. He caught 20 passes for 169 yards and one touchdown while being targeted 33 times.
"He may have improved his value to the team by not playing," Corry said. "That's hard to do but you saw how much he was missed with how the offense bogged down without him there."
Adding to Pitta's importance, the Ravens' other two primary tight ends — Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark — are also free agents and not expected to return.
Newsome has made it clear that the team needs to add a couple of weapons for Flacco this offseason. Losing Pitta, who caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012 and was one of the stars of the team's Super Bowl run, would only make the situation more dire.
"That's a player they can't afford to lose," said former NFL wide receiver and ESPN analyst Keyshawn Johnson. "Obviously, when he got back, he proved he can play at a really high level and adds a dimension to the tight end position. They should pay him. If that means making him the franchise player, then use the tag. You don't want to lose a good player like that. Unless you've got a viable replacement, you have to pay him what the market bears."
Running back Ray Rice, Suggs and nose tackle Haloti Ngata were all franchised before they got the contract extension that they were seeking. The Ravens have used the franchise tag seven times in team history and only once (offensive lineman Wally Williams) did it not result in a long-term deal.
But Pitta's situation is slightly different, primarily because of the debate of how much the franchise tag would cost. Corry said that if Pitta was tagged as a tight end and not a wide receiver, it would be a "no brainer" for his agent to file a grievance.
The Green Bay Packers were considering putting the franchise tag on tight end Jermichael Finley in 2012, but knowing a grievance could result, they agreed to a two-year, $15 million deal that annually paid the player approximately the midpoint between the tight end and wide receiver franchise tags.
Last offseason, the Tennessee Titans opted not to tag Jared Cook after he was exploring a challenge of the tight end franchise designation. Cook, who ultimately became a free agent and signed with the St. Louis Rams, frequently lines up in the slot or on the outside rather than next to the tackle, like traditional tight ends do.
According to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, "franchise" players are to be tendered at the position "at which [he] participated in the most plays during the prior League Year." The wording has created some ambiguity with how tight ends are viewed under the franchise tag. In Pitta's case, he played only 40 of his 163 snaps this past season as a traditional tight end.
"The CBA has some language helpful to the players," said Andrew Brandt, a former agent and NFL executive who now covers the business of football for ESPN. "Beyond all of this, the tag is merely a delay of the key question still sitting there: does the team want to make a long-term investment in the player? Some teams just want to go year-to-year with these players with no intention of committing long term. Others use it as a placeholder while doing negotiations."
This is not exactly unchartered territory for the Ravens. In 2008, they franchised Suggs as a linebacker and he filed a grievance alleging that he should be paid the rate of a defensive end. Before an arbitrator could rule, the two sides ultimately agreed to split the difference between the two salaries and Suggs received an $8.5 million franchise tender as a hybrid defensive end-linebacker.
But the matter didn't set precedence for how other similar situations should be handled going forward. That's why the ambiguity remains as the Ravens ponder their options with Pitta.
Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.
Tight ends and the franchise tag
Since 2007, only five tight ends have gotten the franchise tag by their respective teams. The Ravens' Dennis Pitta could join that group.
Player, team; Year franchised; Final season with team;
Fred Davis, Redskins; 2012; *2013;
Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars; 2011; **2013
Bo Scaife, Titans; 2009; 2010;
Dallas Clark, Colts; 2008; 2011;
L.J. Smith, Eagles; 2008; 2008;
*- Davis is a free agent and is not expected to be re-signed by the Redskins.
** Lewis remains on the Jaguars' roster.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun