These are extremely expensive, pivotal times for the Ravens, an organization facing major financial and roster decisions surrounding quarterback Joe Flacco.
Monday marks the first day NFL teams can name a franchise player, and general manager Ozzie Newsome says Flacco is the Ravens' only candidate for the designation.
If the Super Bowl champions don't sign Flacco to a contract extension prior to a March 4 deadline to utilize the franchise tag, they're expected to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent through either an exclusive franchise tender of $20.46 million or a non-exclusive franchise tender of $14.6 million.
Under league rules governing non-exclusive franchise players, the Ravens would be compensated with pair of first-round draft picks if Flacco agreed to a contract with another team and they didn't exercise their right of first refusal and match the offer. Under the exclusive tag, Flacco wouldn't be allowed to negotiate with any other team.
Contract talks have yet to resume between Ravens vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty and Flacco's agent, Joe Linta, since hitting an impasse in August, but are expected to pick up as soon as later this week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. The free agent signing period starts March 12.
"This has been the most curious negotiation in the NFL over the past year," said ESPN business of football analyst Andrew Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers vice president of player finance. "After the first Monday night game, John Harbaugh said 'Pay the Man!' and the public sentiment was certainly high towards a major contract extension for Flacco. During some down performances in the season, we heard a lot less of that.
"The key for a front office in making a franchise-defining decision is to not let that sway of emotions rule in business decisions like this. They have clearly prioritized Flacco in a certain market and it is unclear if the postseason performance has changed that."
Flacco now shares an NFL single-season postseason record with Joe Montana and Kurt Warner after throwing 11 touchdown passes in the playoffs, capping that run with three touchdowns in a victory over the San Francisco 49ers and being named Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. In the playoffs, Flacco completed 57.9 percent of his passes for 1,140 yards, no interceptions and a 114.0 quarterback rating.
Linta is seeking a contract that would make Flacco the top paid quarterback in the game. That would exceed Drew Brees' annual average of $20 million and Peyton Manning's $18 million.
"Somebody said, 'Should Joe be the highest-paid quarterback in the game?' I said, 'Yes,'" Linta told The Sun recently. "I'm not going to be apologetic for him. He's shown he's a big-time guy in terms of contract versus other guys. He's a lot younger than them, too. He's hitting his prime.
"When you do the contract, you want to look at two things: body of work and present value over his five years of work. You have to be able to project out what he can do and what he can do for the next five to six years. On both counts, Joe has been exemplary."
Flacco isn't expecting his contract to become an issue, striking an optimistic stance after the Super Bowl.
"This is a great organization," Flacco said. "I love being here. I don't anticipate any problems."
However, the Ravens are facing a tight salary-cap situation.
They're currently $9.864 million under the projected 2013 salary cap of $121 million with 49 salary-cap commitments totaling $111.136 million. That figure doesn't include having retained any unrestricted free agents or restricted free agents.
So signing Flacco to a long-term deal is the preference for multiple reasons. It would lock up the Ravens' homegrown quarterback for probably the next seven seasons. It would also grant them the freedom to potentially hold onto some unrestricted free agents — safety Ed Reed, cornerback Cary Williams, inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and outside linebacker Paul Kruger — and secure restricted free agent tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson and defensive lineman Arthur Jones.
"We're looking to get a fair deal with Joe, and, yes, the franchise number does consume a lot of cap room," Newsome said. "If we are able to get a deal done, it will allow us to participate more in the market if we choose. We understand what the priority is."
The Ravens are still carrying $1.8 million in dead money for former kicker Billy Cundiff.
However, they'll gain $4.35 million in cap space once linebacker Ray Lewis officially retires and can subtract his $5.4 million salary. More savings can be created if veteran offensive linemen Matt Birk ($2.75 million salary) and Bobbie Williams ($1.2 million salary) retire or are released.
The Ravens want to avoid parting ways with wide receiver Anquan Boldin and fullback Vonta Leach, who have respective cap figures of $7.531 million and $4.33 million.
"It's the job of the front office to not let cap dictate key football decisions," Brandt said. "They'll do what they've planned to do. The cap will work itself out, or it should. The management tool of the franchise tag is a powerful one. I would be surprised if the Ravens haven't had a plan to use the tag on Flacco and deal with the other free agents for some time now."
Peyton Manning ($20 million) has the highest quarterback base salary for 2013 followed by Eli Manning ($13 million), Matthew Stafford ($12.5 million), Ben Roethlisberger ($11.6 million) and Tom Brady ($9.75 million).
What should the Ravens pay Flacco?
"Flacco and his agent certainly could point to the data points of the Brees contract and deals ahead for Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and others to justify their asking price," Brandt said. "To date, however, it seems the team has been unwilling to meet those demands and the devil is usually in the details: amount guaranteed, cash flow after two, three, four years.
"The tag has become a weapon to secure contracts at the deadline. The player knows he'll be forced to play a one-year contract without security or accept a long-term deal far exceeding that, although not the ideal contract he may have been looking for."
If the Ravens make Flacco their franchise player, history suggests they'll eventually sign him to a long-term deal.
Only once before — offensive lineman Wally Williams going to the New Orleans Saints after being a franchise player in 1998 — has the team not ultimately signed their franchise player to a contract.
That includes past deals with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (five years, $61 million), outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (six years, $63 million) and cornerback Chris McAlister (seven years, $55 million)
Last July, the Ravens signed Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice to a five-year, $40 million maximum value contract roughly an hour before an NFL deadline where he would have had to play the entire season under the franchise tag.
"The Ravens do take care of their guys," Rice said. "They did that with me last year, and hopefully the same thing happens for Joe."
Top quarterback compensation
It's an extremely expensive proposition to have a blue-chip quarterback on the roster, costing NFL teams huge dollar figures annually. Although New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees' $100 million deal averages $20 million in annual compensation as the highest current quarterback contract, his 2013 salary-cap figure is $17.4 million with a base salary of $9.75 million. Here's a look at the top five salaries and corresponding salary-cap figures for 2013 that have boosted the average of the top five quarterback cap figures to $20.46 million:
Quarterback Team Base salary Salary-cap figure
1. Tom Brady New England Patriots $9.75 million $21.55 million
2. Eli Manning New York Giants $13 million $20.85 million
2. Matthew Stafford Detroit Lions $12.5 million $20.82 million
4. Peyton Manning Denver Broncos $20 million $20 million
5. Ben Roethlisberger Pittsburgh Steelers $11.6 million $19.596 million
— Aaron Wilson
Exclusive franchise tag vs. non-exclusive franchise tag
Under the NFL collective bargaining agreement, teams are allowed to designate one player annually as their franchise player. That prevents the player, who's typically a highly valued elite performer, from becoming an unrestricted free agent and signing with another team.
If a player is designated as an exclusive franchise player, they receive a one-year tender salary derived from the average of the top five salaries at his position or a salary at least 120 percent higher than his previous year's salary, whichever is higher. The player isn't allowed to negotiate with other teams. The quarterback exclusive franchise figure for 2013 is $20.46 million.
If a player is designated as a non-exclusive franchise player — the quarterback non-exclusive figure for 2013 is $14.6 million — then they're allowed to negotiate with other teams. If a player agrees to a contract with another team, his current team has the right of first refusal to match any deal.
Should the team opt not to match, the player would go to the other team. The original team would be compensated with two first-round draft picks from the team that signed the franchise player.
However, NFL teams tend to not try to sign other teams' non-exclusive franchise players because it involves doing someone else's negotiating work for them and then they would likely wind up not obtaining the player.
— Aaron Wilson