A week after acknowledging that some difficult decisions would have to be made to help the team's salary cap situation, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome made two such moves Thursday, jettisoning two defensive starters and team leaders.
The Ravens released starting middle linebacker Daryl Smith, the team's leading tackler for two of the past three years, and declined the 2016 option for defensive end Chris Canty. The two moves, neither of which was unexpected given the Ravens' desire to gain some salary cap flexibility and get younger and faster on defense, opens about $4.5 million of cap space.
When you add in Wednesday's three-year extension with quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens have gained about $10 million of salary cap room over the past two days in preparation for free agency, which starts March 9. They had entered the week with the second-fewest cap space in the NFL, but the recent savings could help them make a stronger run at re-signing unrestricted free agents Kelechi Osemele and Shareece Wright.
Newsome, however, said that the organization isn't ruling out re-signing Smith, a 12-year veteran who turns 34 later this month.
"While we are releasing Daryl, we are not closing the door on the possibility of him returning to the Ravens," Newsome said in a statement released by the team. "He deserves an opportunity to see his market value at this time. With 'Buck,' you're talking about one of the NFL's highest-quality people. We have been fortunate to have him with the Ravens, and his production has been outstanding."
Smith, a longtime member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, spent the past three seasons with the Ravens, starting all 48 regular-season games during that span. Smith and Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David are the only two NFL players with at least 350 tackles, five sacks, five interceptions and four forced fumbles over the past three years. Smith is also one of only four active players with at least 30 sacks and 10 interceptions in his career.
Last season, he led the team with 121 tackles to go with three sacks, one interception and three passes defended. However, Smith was taken off the field more and more on obvious passing downs in the second half of the season, which foreshadowed Thursday's decision. Smith was due to make a base salary of $3.5 million in the third season of a four-year, $16 million pact. His cap hit was $4.375 million.
If the Ravens don't re-sign him, they could give young linebackers Arthur Brown and Zachary Orr, or veteran Albert McClellan, an opportunity to play alongside C.J. Mosley; or they could opt to add a middle linebacker in the draft. UCLA's Myles Jack is a potential fit for them with the sixth overall pick.
"We have been blessed to have a person like Daryl Smith on our team," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He has been a steady and intelligent player with grit. 'Buck' is a special individual who has become a friend. Everyone who has spent time with him understands what I'm talking about. His numbers speak for themselves."
Canty, an 11-year veteran who originally signed with the Ravens before the 2013 season, started 33 games for the team over the past three seasons. He was released last February, but ultimately re-signed to a one-year deal with an option for 2016.
Canty, 33, had a difficult 2015 season, making just 19 tackles to go with a sack, while being limited to nine games by calf and pectoral injuries. The presence of several young defensive linemen on the Ravens roster, including Timmy Jernigan, Carl Davis and Brent Urban, also made Canty expendable.
He said late in the year that he planned to play at least one more season rather than retire.
"Chris was a leader for our young defensive line, especially last season," Harbaugh said. "For three years, he has been a reliable force on the field, in our locker room and in our community. He has been highly productive as a player, and even better as a leader."
The Ravens might not be done with their roster maneuvering. They still have decisions to make on left tackle Eugene Monroe and tight end Dennis Pitta, and they also could choose to address their logjam at safety. They also will have to decide whether to tender contracts to restricted free agents Marlon Brown and Brynden Trawick.