The start of free agency annually brings an exodus of Ravens players, who leave the organization for big contracts elsewhere. On Tuesday, the Ravens altered the script ever so slightly, opting to trade Haloti Ngata after failing to compromise on a contract extension with one of the franchise's most decorated players.
Just as the free agent market was set to open, the Ravens finalized a deal that sent Ngata and a seventh-round NFL draft pick to the Detroit Lions for fourth- and fifth-round draft picks in the 2015 draft. The trade is expected to become official Wednesday after Ngata travels to Detroit and takes a physical.
The Ravens also Tuesday lost starting tight end Owen Daniels, who signed a three-year deal with the Denver Broncos. He's the third prominent Ravens free agent to leave in free agency, joining wide receiver Torrey Smith (San Francisco 49ers) and defensive end-outside linebacker Pernell McPhee (Chicago Bears).
But Ngata's departure was clearly the most significant as the 31-year-old was one of the mainstays of the defense for nearly a decade.
"Haloti has been an outstanding player for us for many years," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement from the team. "He consistently showed tremendous leadership in our locker room and on the field. At times, he was one of the NFL's most dominant players."
Team officials had made it clear they wanted to keep Ngata, with owner Steve Bisciotti last month characterizing the five-time Pro Bowl selection as one the organization's "iconic players that helped us to get where we are as a franchise."
However, Ngata carried a $16 million salary cap number in the final season of the five-year, $61 million deal he signed in 2011. That was much too prohibitive going into free agency for the cash-strapped Ravens, who needed Terrell Suggs to restructure his contract earlier in the day just to get under the $143.28 million salary cap.
The Ravens tried in recent weeks to work out a contract extension with Ngata, but the efforts were unsuccessful, so they sent him to the Lions where he'll reunite with two former Ravens assistants: head coach Jim Caldwell and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Ngata will replace defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who is expected to sign a free-agent deal with the Miami Dolphins.
"I'm really appreciative of the Baltimore Ravens organization, Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh, they've been outstanding to Haloti throughout this process and for his entire career with them," Mike McCartney, Ngata's agent, told The Baltimore Sun. "I know Haloti is excited about going to a great defense coached by Teryl Austin, who he worked with before in Baltimore. It's hopefully a win-win for everybody. I spoke to the Lions and they are ecstatic."
With the trade, the Ravens opened up $8.5 million in salary cap space and should have 10 selections in next month's draft after compensation picks are awarded this month. They'll need them to fill out a roster that has been dramatically overhauled since the team beat the San Francisco 49ers to capture Super Bowl XLVII roughly 25 months ago. Only 14 players on that team — and just five starters — are still under contract with the organization.
As the Ravens enter the second day of free agency, they still are looking to re-sign primary running back Justin Forsett, an unrestricted free agent. They also need help at wide receiver, tight end, cornerback and safety. And now they have a gaping hole in the middle of the defensive line, which Ngata had manned for nine seasons after the Ravens made him the 12th overall pick in the 2006 draft.
"Haloti is a great player, but an even better person," Harbaugh said in the statement released by the team. "He has been an anchor of our success for many years. We appreciate everything he has done for our organization and the Baltimore community. We wish he and his family nothing but the best."
Timmy Jernigan, a second-round draft pick in 2014 who played well in a starting role when Ngata was serving a four-game suspension last season, is the likely replacement at starting defensive tackle. But the Ravens, who released starting defensive end Chris Canty this offseason, will probably have to add some depth to the defensive line in free agency or the draft.
Either way, Ngata will be a tough player for the Ravens to replace. The former Oregon standout had 528 tackles, 25 1/2 sacks, five interceptions, six forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries over nine seasons, missing only five games to injury during that span. He was a Pro Bowl selection every year from 2009 to 2013.
But Ngata's impact was measured by the attention opposing teams paid to him. He frequently absorbed double teams, holding his ground in the middle while keeping blockers off fellow defensive linemen and the team's inside linebackers. Ngata is a big reason why the Ravens have had a top-five run defense for seven of the past nine seasons.
He never had more than 5 1/2 sacks in a season, but Ngata's ability to apply pressure inside and prevent quarterbacks from stepping up in the pocket figured prominently in teammates getting sacks.
During the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Ngata struggled to play up to his usual standard, partly because he was slowed by knee and shoulder injuries. However, he was in the midst of a bounce-back season last year before he was suspended the final four games of the regular season for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Ngata said his suspension was a result of taking Adderall, and he apologized for using poor judgment.
The Ravens went 3-1 in his absence and qualified for the playoffs for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. They'll now try to build on that streak without their standout defensive tackle, whose departure Tuesday foreshadowed another offseason of expected change.