At 4 p.m. Tuesday, the NFL's free-agent spending spree will begin in earnest, though the Ravens figure to remain mostly on the sideline.
Annually lacking the salary cap space to make major outside additions and content to reward their own players while building through the draft, the Ravens traditionally stay quiet through the first couple of days of free agency when money changes hands at an eye-popping rate.
This year is expected to be no different. While other teams are awash in salary cap space and need to increase their spending per a provision in the collective bargaining agreement, the Ravens have some definite needs but lack the flexibility and finances to be major players on the open market.
If their recent free-agent history is any indication, the Ravens' focus will be on trying to re-sign a couple of their own rather than bidding on everybody else's. Unrestricted free-agent running back Justin Forsett, wide receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Owen Daniels are all guys who the Ravens would like to bring back at the right price.
"I expect the Ravens to be judicious in free agency," said former NFL agent Joel Corry, who writes about the business of football and the salary cap for National Football Post and CBS Sports. "They are not going to be one of these teams that act like they have money burning a hole in their pocket. … One, they don't have the cap room to do it, and two, that hasn't been their M.O. Nobody should expect them to turn into the Miami Dolphins or the Tampa Buccaneers of the past couple of years."
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said several times late last month that the organization would "exhaust every avenue" to create cap flexibility and retain some of its 15 unrestricted free agents. The Ravens still are working on potential contract restructures or extensions for defensive starters Haloti Ngata and Lardarius Webb, and they are expected to gain additional room under the cap ahead of the start of the league year Tuesday.
However, as of Friday, they were just $4.6 million under the $143.28 million salary cap, and that's before they've tendered contract offers to their restricted and exclusive-rights free agents. Only four teams had less salary cap space.
Teams were allowed to start contacting pending free agents Saturday, but contracts can't be agreed to and completed until 4 p.m. Tuesday.
"Some of the numbers that are thrown out there, quite frankly, we can't match," Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said late last month. "We don't have that kind of space. … So, we're going to keep doing what we do, the way we do it, and that precludes us sometimes from capitalizing on paying certain guys."
Patient and prudent
After going 10-6 and losing to the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional playoff round last season, the Ravens have several holes. On offense, they are thin at running back, wide receiver and tight end. On defense, they badly need to upgrade their defensive backfield and the potential departures of Ngata and Pernell McPhee would create depth problems along the defensive line and at outside linebacker.
However, the franchise traditionally has chosen to fill most needs through the draft or with under-the-radar signings.
"We have to get very creative with deals," Bisciotti said. "[Newsome] sets his number; I live with that number. I've never successfully talked him into changing that number."
Newsome always has adhered to a "right player, right price" mantra in free agency. The Ravens have declined to pay above what they deem market value to keep some of their own free agents while mostly limiting their spending to perceived bargains and veteran castoffs from other teams.
The strategy has resulted in their accruing more compensatory draft picks than any other NFL organization — teams are awarded those selections based essentially on free-agent gains and losses — and an annual exodus of key Ravens players in the first couple of days of free agency.
In recent years, Michael Oher, Arthur Jones, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger and Cary Williams were among those who bolted. Meanwhile, the Ravens have been content to fill roster holes later in the offseason by signing players let go by other teams who do not factor into the draft-pick compensation formula.
Forsett, Daniels, Steve Smith, Elvis Dumervil and Daryl Smith all became Ravens under those circumstances. Beyond that type of free agent, the Ravens recently have limited their forays on the open market to signing unheralded players such as Corey Graham and Darian Stewart.
Last offseason the Ravens, focused on solidifying their offensive line, re-signed left tackle Eugene Monroe less than an hour into free agency and then went mostly quiet until the market settled.
"That's really what you want to do in free agency is try and stay out of the splash signings unless it's just a real obvious fit; try and stay out of that first 24 to 48 hours and then be selective," said ESPN front office insider Louis Riddick, a former executive with the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles. "Do good deals for your football team. Do good deals for your locker room because you're getting the right kind of guy and you're not just saying, 'The heck with culture and the heck with fit,' because you just want the guy that makes the biggest splash.'
"Look, I've been involved in that numerous times. When I hear splash signings and when I hear splash players as it relates to free agency, I just kind of throw my hands up. I just step back and go, 'Whoa.' You can have it because I've been down that road."
Big names, big deals
This year's unrestricted free-agent market offers plenty of "splash" options. Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has been called the most dominant defensive player to hit free agency since Reggie White.
Other Pro Bowl defensive players who should be available include New England Patriots defensive backs Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty and San Diego Chargers cornerback Brandon Flowers. McPhee also is expected to get a lucrative deal. On the offensive side of the ball, running back DeMarco Murray, wide receivers Randall Cobb and Jeremy Maclin and tight end Julius Thomas highlight an impressive skill-position free-agent group.
"It's going to be an extreme first 72 hours," Corry said. "If you don't get paid by the end of the first week of free agency, I'd say nine times out of 10, you missed the boat. You have to readjust your expectations."
A couple of factors point to this year's start of free agency being unprecedented in terms of dollars spent. The near 10 percent increase in the salary cap number from last year has given teams more financial flexibility than ever before.
Twenty-one of the league's 32 teams have at least $15 million of cap space, and that total likely will grow before Tuesday as teams make more roster cuts. Seven teams have at least $40 million of space, led by the Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars, who both have nearly $70 million with which to shop.
The 2011 collective bargaining agreement requires teams to use 89 percent of the salary cap over a four-year span. Almost a third of the league has some spending to do to be in compliance with the rule by the time the current period ends in 2016. Teams that don't spend 89 percent of the cap will be required to pay the difference to the NFL Players Association.
"Jacksonville and Oakland are going to be forced to spend," Corry said. "You have players that are going to chase money and aren't that concerned about whether the team is going to win. Those teams are going to pick up some pretty good players."
Still, Riddick indicated there are enough quality players available to go around.
"There's always value to be found in free agency as long as you really understand and lay out what your expectations are, lay out what your price is that you are willing to pay, and don't let your emotions get involved," he said.