Key decisions still loom for Ravens as free agency nears

Monday is the final day of the NFL's three-day exclusive negotiating window that allows teams to contact pending free agents ahead of the market opening at 4 p.m. Tuesday. To this point the period, which permits contract discussions but not final agreements, has been dominated by a number of top free agents agreeing to deals to stay with their current teams.

Quarterback Mark Sanchez (Philadelphia Eagles), running back Mark Ingram (New Orleans Saints), wide receiver Randall Cobb (Green Back Packers), offensive tackle Derek Newton (Houston Texans), cornerbacks Kareem Jackson (Texans) and Brandon Flowers (San Diego Chargers) and punter Brett Kern (Tennessee Titans) were among the players who resisted the temptation to hit the open market and re-signed over the weekend.


The Ravens have yet to re-sign any of their prospective unrestricted free agents, which is hardly surprising. They have a history of letting their unrestricted free agents test the market. They also didn't finalize any moves to add to the unforgiving $4.6 million of salary cap space that team currently has.

Here are a few observations about what the happenings of this past weekend mean for them going forward:


The Ravens have a lot to do and not much time to do it

This is not a criticism. It's just a fact. By 4 p.m. Tuesday, the Ravens will have to make sure their salary cap is in order, which means that they'll have to make a determination on the status of defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and cornerback Lardarius Webb, along with make some other potential cap-cutting moves. They'll have to tender contracts to their group of restricted free agents, which includes safety Will Hill and kicker Justin Tucker. They'll have to submit a contract tender to their exclusive rights free agents, and there are 11 of them. And, if they want to take one more shot at trying to persuade some of their own unrestricted free agents to re-sign rather than hit the open market, they're on the clock with that, too. Look, Tuesday's 4 p.m. start of the new league year didn't sneak up on the Ravens. They're prepared and they traditionally take the time they have. But the lack of resolution on several fronts has set the stage for a flurry of activity over the next 36 hours.

The Ravens really want to keep Ngata, Webb

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That's not to say that they will, but obviously they are exhausting all the time that they have available to try to find a compromise with the contracts of two of their veteran defensive standouts. It's unlikely that they'd bring back Haloti Ngata ($16 million cap number) and Lardarius Webb ($12 million) under their current deals, so the belief has always been that the players would be let go if a restructure or extension can't be reached. In recent days, there has been far more optimism with Webb and the Ravens arriving at a deal than with Ngata. But it would be foolish to totally rule out the Ravens and Ngata coming to an agreement. As remote as it might look, deadlines sometimes spur compromise. If the Ravens thought there was zero hope, they would have probably cut him by now.

If the Ravens want to make a significant upgrade at cornerback, the draft is their best hope

It is good to be a free-agent cornerback this offseason. Byron Maxwell, the top-rated cornerback available, will reportedly sign a five-year deal for more than $50 million that will include more than $25 million guaranteed. Jackson stayed with the Texans on a four-year, $34 million deal. Flowers did the same with the Chargers, courtesy of a four-year, $36 million pact. Those numbers are much too rich for the cash-strapped Ravens. Their best hope for upgrading their much-maligned cornerback corps starts with getting a restructured deal for Webb and then getting a healthy Jimmy Smith and Asa Jackson back. Then, they'll likely have to target the position in the first couple of rounds of the draft. Overpaying for a second-tier, free-agent cornerback doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Torrey Smith had little choice but to leave town

Obviously, Smith's departure will strike a nerve with some Ravens fans, considering the wide receiver had adopted Baltimore as his home and he became one of the faces of the franchise on and off the field. But you can't fault Smith for leaving. I don't doubt for a second that if all things were equal, Smith wanted to remain with the Ravens. He's said that many times and there's no reason not to be believe him. But all things were not equal. The Ravens just don't have much money to offer him, and even if they did have more cap space, the Ravens probably wouldn't pay Smith between $7 and $9 million a year. Hometown discounts only go so far. Owner Steve Bisciotti foreshadowed Smith's departure two weeks ago when he acknowledged that Smith will get much more money elsewhere, and he certainly didn't sound like a man who anticipated Smith staying. Both sides understood that this was the likelihood. Now, the Ravens have to figure out a way to replace Smith, whose speed, durability and leadership will be missed. With Jeremy Maclin reportedly headed to Kansas City, the top free agent receivers available include Michael Crabtree, Nate Washington, Cecil Shorts, Kenny Britt, Eddie Royal and Brian Hartline. Not sure any of those guys are a great fit for the Ravens, who need a burner on the outside. But the free agent market at wide receiver could grow over the next couple of days with the likelihood that Percy Harvin, Andre Johnson and Dwayne Bowe will be released. The Ravens perhaps would be best served by signing a veteran such as Johnson and then drafting a burner with an early pick.


Justin Forsett will have a market, too

There's been a ton of talk about the devaluation of running backs, but several backs did pretty well for themselves over the past couple of days. LeSean McCoy, whose trade to the Buffalo Bills will become official tomorrow, will reportedly receive a new five-year contract that will pay him an average of $8 million per year. Ingram signed a four-year, $16 million deal to stay with the Saints. And former 49er Frank Gore is set to sign a deal with the Eagles that will pay him an average of $7.5 million guaranteed over the first two seasons, according to Pro Football Talk. DeMarco Murray, the top free agent running back, will reportedly mull a huge deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars against returning to the Cowboys. What does this all mean to Ravens free agent running back Justin Forsett? Well, the door may have closed in New Orleans and Philadelphia, but there are still other teams, such as Dallas, Atlanta and perhaps San Francisco, that could use a back. And while Forsett won't break the bank, he should get a nice contract. The Ravens still look like his best fit.