The Ravens have maintained an expensive tradition of rewarding their top players with contracts that approach or exceed the gold standard as the highest in the NFL.
Besides quarterback Joe Flacco's blockbuster $120.6 million contract signed in March that included $51 million guaranteed, the Ravens have reached deep into owner Steve Bisciotti's coffers to sign several other standout players to lucrative deals.
That includes nose tackle Haloti Ngata's $61 million contract, with $35 million guaranteed; rush linebacker Terrell Suggs' $62.5 million contract, with $37.1 million guaranteed; and running back Ray Rice's $35 million deal, with $22 million guaranteed.
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“The Ravens aren't cheap,” said Joel Corry, a former NFL agent who writes about the business of football for National Football Post. “They're very generous with their best players. It's a star system, not unlike many NFL teams.”
Now the Ravens must deal with their stars' high salary cap figures after a disappointing season in which the team failed to make the playoffs for the first time under coach John Harbaugh. A combined $37.15 million among Ngata ($16 million), Suggs ($12.4 million) and Rice ($8.75 million) counts against the salary cap for 2014. Ngata's and Rice's contracts are regarded as untouchable for salary cap reasons, and their place on next season's roster is safe, according to sources.
Heading into the offseason, the Ravens face several complicated personnel and financial decisions. None looms larger than how to handle Suggs, who faded during the second half of the season and whose contract offers potential salary cap flexibility.
Entering the final year of his contract and due a $7.8 million base salary, Suggs could restructure his deal by adding years to space out his salary cap hit, better allowing the Ravens to retain their free agents and, perhaps, sign ones from other teams.
The Ravens are expected to approach Suggs about adjusting his deal and will try to reach a compromise that would lower his salary cap figure, according to sources.
“That's a hard one with Suggs,” Corry said. “How much do you pay him, and how do you agree on his value? You can't pay a guy for what he's done in the past. If you want to extend him, only one pass rusher has signed a deal that averaged over $10 million when they were over 30 years old, and that's [Chicago Bears defensive end] Julius Peppers.
“Suggs may have to accept that his best days are behind him, but most players don't acknowledge that. They have to play this one just right or go find a guy to be his potential replacement if they can't work it out. The Ravens already have [strong-side linebacker] Elvis Dumervil on the roster at under his market value, with a $1 million salary for next year, but they would need another pass rusher to replace Suggs if they can't find common ground.”
Suggs made the Pro Bowl this season, finishing with 10 sacks one year after limping through much of the 2012 season with a partially torn Achilles tendon. However, the 31-year-old appeared to wear down in the second half of the season, recording only 20 tackles and one sack over the final eight games.
“It's a tricky thing with a player like Suggs that's getting up there in years,” said Louis Riddick, an ESPN analyst and former Philadelphia Eagles director of pro personnel. “The Ravens could feel like he has enough left in the tank to extend him until they have a better alternative. When he's dialed in and feeling good, Suggs is still one of the best combination power-finesse pass rushers. He can change the course of a game for you. I know he's still a formidable pass rusher, but the way he ended the season would make me leery.”
Starting cornerback Lardarius Webb ($10.5 million salary cap figure, $7.5 million base salary) is another candidate for a restructured deal. Webb, though, won't be approached, a source said, unless absolutely necessary.
Ngata and Rice, meanwhile, are unlikely to have their deals altered or be released from the team outright. Cutting either would severely damage the Ravens' flexibility under the salary cap because it would create “dead money,” which results from the release of a player before his contract is completed. The remaining bonus money or guaranteed salary owed to the player remains on the team's books, even after he's no longer on the roster.
Under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, a player's annual salary cap figure is determined by a relatively simple equation: Once the signing bonus is divided evenly over the length of the contract, the salary cap figure is determined by adding the base salary for each individual year to the annual bonus figure.
Ngata's $16 million salary cap figure, for example, is derived from adding his scheduled $8.5 million base salary for next season to an additional $7.5 million, which represents the prorated portion of his $35 million in guaranteed money ($25 million signing bonus, $10 million option bonus) divided over the length of his five-year contract.
When a player is released outright, his salary is taken off the books, unless it's guaranteed. His remaining prorated bonuses and guaranteed salaries, which had been spread out over the deal, are immediately counted against the cap for that year as dead money.
Ravens vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty, the team's chief negotiator and salary cap guru, always tries to avoid having dead money on the books.