By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun
9:46 PM EDT, March 10, 2014
The Ravens have arrived at a rare moment in franchise history.
When free agency starts at 4 p.m. Tuesday, the Ravens will have the most financial flexibility they've had since coach John Harbaugh was hired six years ago. The Ravens are carrying $21.987 million in salary cap space, according to NFL Players Association figures. Only 12 other NFL teams have more room under the league limit of $133 million.
The Ravens now have plenty of spending power should they choose to veer slightly from their usual tradition of bargain-hunting.
The extra money means that the Ravens have the opportunity to be competitive for free agents or to take care of players currently on the roster, addressing needs at offensive tackle, wide receiver, free safety, inside linebacker and the interior offensive line.
"The Ravens can be dangerous with that much salary cap space," said former NFL agent Joel Corry, who analyzes the business of football for National Football Post. "That's because of the way they structure some of their more lucrative contracts with a large signing bonus, an option bonus in the second year and a modest first-year salary. They should be able to stretch those dollars more than other teams. They understand the marketplace."
A hefty portion of the Ravens' available salary cap space is expected to be devoted toward offensive tackle. The Ravens remain in negotiations with left offensive tackle Eugene Monroe and both sides remain optimistic that a deal can be reached, according to league sources.
The Ravens have negotiated with middle linebacker Daryl Smith and have made him an offer, but aren't close to a deal, according to a source.
The Ravens intend to try to retain their own players and then selectively peruse the NFL marketplace.
"We've got some options, and we've got a little bit of room," Harbaugh said during a news conference last week to discuss tight end Dennis Pitta's signing a five-year, $32 million contract. "You want to be smart and you want to make the most of your resources and put the best team we can together. It ends up being about using your resources in a way that's the very best for your team, to make us as strong as we can possibly be.
"We're trying to be aggressive about it, and because we have more salary cap space than we've had in a year since , for sure, we have a chance to do some things. The first priority is our guys right now."
If the Monroe contract averages between $8 million and $8.5 million, he would likely have a first-year salary cap figure somewhere in the range of $6 million.
The key is structuring the contract to let the Ravens keep enough salary cap space stocked away while still making an enticing enough bid for Monroe.
"Left tackles are very expensive," Corry said. "If the Ravens aren't willing to pay Eugene Monroe, their best bet could be going after a second-tier tackle like [Cincinnati Bengals' Anthony] Collins. If you want a cheap left tackle, then you need to draft one high. There really isn't a quality cheap left tackle that's a veteran.
"If you're the Ravens, do you want to go back to the days of Bryant McKinnie? Of course not. So, they had better bite the bullet and pay Monroe. Otherwise, they may have protection issues with Joe Flacco."
The Ravens could also be in the market for a veteran wide receiver, preferably someone who can work the middle of the field in tandem with Pitta.
Among the players expected to be on their wish list, according to sources: Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate, Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dexter McCluster and New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman.
Should the Patriots release Danny Amendola or the Carolina Panthers cut or trade Steve Smith, the pool of receivers could increase and the prices could potentially drop for pass-catchers.
"Edelman may want to stay in New England and you have to wonder if he's a function of Tom Brady throwing to him, and I would think he'll cost over $5 million per year," Corry said. "Sanders knows the division, is tough and has the tools to be a returner. He and Tate will probably cost between $5 million and $6 million. McCluster is kind of a jack of all trades where he's also a returner and might be cheaper."
The Ravens are expected to shift Matt Elam, last year's first-round draft pick, from free safety to strong safety and are seeking a rangy centerfielder type to take over at free safety.
The high-end safety market is expensive, especially Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd, who reportedly wants $9 million per year.
The Ravens could explore less pricey options like New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, who can also play cornerback, Indianapolis Colts safety Antoine Bethea, San Francisco 49ers safety Donte Whitner and Miami Dolphins safety Chris Clemons.
"The Ravens probably can't afford Byrd and wouldn't pay that much for a safety unless he's the second coming of Ed Reed," Corry said. "I think they could get Jenkins for $4 million per year. He might undercut some of the other guys. He might be the Ravens' best option in terms of budgetary constraints."
The Ravens aren't expected to spend big for an offensive guard or center, but could look for proven blockers later during the signing period.
The Ravens have enough money to go after several players, but that doesn't mean they necessarily will or should.
"Free agency is an overpayment situation," said former Indianapolis Colts general manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian during a conference call. "The best players are already signed. These are 'B' players whose agents are looking for 'A' money. That is not the best of buys."
By remaining patient and allowing prices to drop as players become anxious to land a contract, the Ravens could wind up saving money and obtaining more players.
That could allow them to potentially work on contract extensions down the road for one of their better young players like wide receiver Torrey Smith.
"You don't want to pay retail in the first few days of free agency," Corry said. "Some very good players will be available later. That's when it becomes a buyers' market instead of a sellers' market. Winning free agency doesn't mean you'll make the playoffs.
"Look at the Miami Dolphins last year and the Philadelphia Eagles' so-called Dream Team. If I'm the Ravens, I save some of that money for Torrey Smith."
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