Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, team president Dick Cass, general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh will speak at the annual “State of the Ravens” offseason address tomorrow at the Under Armour Performance Center.
For Bisciotti, it’s the one time during the year where he takes questions from the local media, so he’s always the featured attraction. But there are plenty of questions to go around, one of them being how the organization plans to keep several of its 13 unrestricted free agents with little salary cap space.
And could those plans include using the franchise tag to make sure tight end Dennis Pitta, one of those free agents, stays in a Ravens uniform at least one more year?
The Ravens have shown a willingness to use the franchise tag, which essentially binds an unrestricted free agent to the team for at least one more year on a set salary. They’ve used it seven times in team history, most recently with running back Ray Rice (2012) and nose tackle Haloti Ngata (2011). In all but one of those instances, the designated franchise player has ultimately agreed to a long-term deal to stay with the team.
Obviously, that’s the hope with Pitta, whose importance to the offense and to quarterback Joe Flacco was never more evident than it was this season when the tight end missed the first 12 games after sustaining a dislocated and fractured right hip. Pitta returned and caught 20 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown in four games, and was targeted 33 times by Flacco.
Pitta has good hands, superb athleticism and wide receiver-like route-running ability and the Ravens clearly don’t have another player on the roster that does what he does or Flacco trusts as much. In fact, all three of the tight ends on the 53-man roster to end the season are free agents, and Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark are unlikely to be back. Clark could retire and Dickson could probably use a change of scenery and an opportunity to play a more featured role in a passing game.
Pitta, on the other hand, wants to stay in Baltimore. He and Flacco are best friends, and he’s extremely comfortable and fond of every aspect of being a Raven. However, that certainly doesn’t mean that he’ll take significantly less money on a contract extension to make it happen.
The hip injury may have prevented what many around the league expected to be a breakout season for a fourth-year tight end but it didn’t totally ruin his market value. Pitta came back from the career-threatening injury and proved that he was healthy and while he had to knock off significant rust, he showed that he’s still a reliable offensive weapon.
He’s 28 and has plenty of good football left in him. With teams using tight ends in the passing game more and more, there’s little doubt that Pitta will have his share of suitors when/if he hits the free agent market and some of those suitors will surely have more financial flexibility than the Ravens.
That’s why the Ravens will work hard to keep Pitta off the market, and try to reach an acceptable deal for both sides before free agency opens on March 11. It’s what both sides want but if they can’t make it happen, using the franchise tag on Pitta is another option.
The downside is it would lock Pitta in at approximately $6.7 million for the 2014 season. That salary is the average of the top five highest-paid tight ends. It also is a significant financial commitment for a team that barring cuts or restructures will have Flacco ($14.8 million on salary cap), Rice ($8.75), Ngata ($16 million), guard Marshal Yanda ($8.4 million), rush linebacker Terrell Suggs ($12.4 million) and cornerback Lardarius Webb ($10.5 million) taking up a good chunk of the cap space.
But, at the very least, it would buy the Ravens some time. They’d have a two-week window from Feb. 17 to March 3 to use the franchise tag. If they did franchise Pitta, they’d then have until July 15 to reach a multi-year extension with the Pitta or he’d play the season under the tag and the $6.7 salary figure.
The Ravens certainly don’t figure to use the tag on anybody else this offseason. Defensive lineman Arthur Jones is one of their most prominent free agents, but the cost of the tag for his position will approach $10 million. That’s way too much to lock up for one year of Jones, especially with what Ngata is due to make.
As for Pitta, it’s a tough call and it will probably be one of the more prominent topics of discussion later this month when the team’s top decision makers gather at Bisciotti’s home in Florida to outline the organization’s offseason plans.