Ravens coach John Harbaugh on the first day of the NFL Scouting Combine. (Baltimore Sun video)
INDIANAPOLIS — As coach John Harbaugh exited a downtown hotel Wednesday morning and headed to the convention center to fulfill his media responsibilities on the first day of the NFL Scouting Combine, he ran into Ravens senior vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty. The team's chief negotiator, Moriarty was hustling to a meeting with an agent.
A week before the free-agent market officially opens, the Ravens' focus remains on keeping a few of their own. Otherwise tight-lipped during his 15-minute news conference, Harbaugh confirmed that the team is in contract talks with its top three pending unrestricted free agents: fullback Kyle Juszczyk, right tackle Rick Wagner and nose tackle Brandon Williams.
"We're negotiating with those guys, we have been," Harbaugh said. "We're trying to get that done. I'm sure there are a lot of conversations going on with their agents right now. I've got my fingers crossed for all those guys."
The deadline to place the franchise tag on players came and went Wednesday with the Ravens opting not to use the tag to keep one of their top pending free agents from hitting the open market on March 9. Though they've used the franchise tag in the past as a precursor to long-term deals with Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Justin Tucker, among others, they viewed the cost as too prohibitive this year.
That means that without a deal over the next week, Wagner, Williams and Juszczyk will hit the free-agent market as arguably the top players at their respective positions. And the Ravens will have three more holes to fill on a team that went 8-8 last season and missed the playoffs for the third time in four years.
"Those guys do what they need to do in terms of their due diligence and checking out what their market value is going to be, and we're just competing against the market for those guys," Harbaugh said. "We do have an edge. They want to be Ravens. They love it in Baltimore, and they love what we're doing as an organization and a team, and they want to be part of it. And we're very competitive with what we're offering them. We're negotiating with them and want them back, and Ricky is definitely a guy we want back."
The NFL Players Association announced Wednesday that the salary cap will be set at $167 million, a $12 million increase from last season. That leaves the Ravens with just under $14 million of salary cap space before they extend restricted and exclusive free-agent rights tenders. However, the number will increase significantly when the Ravens go through an expected round of roster or pay cuts.
A number of longtime Ravens, including tight end Dennis Pitta and safety Lardarius Webb, and other veterans could be in jeopardy. That list also includes tight end Benjamin Watson, center Jeremy Zuttah, strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil and defensive backs Kyle Arrington, Shareece Wright and Kendrick Lewis.
The Ravens will also have to decide whether to pick up wide receiver Mike Wallace's 2017 option by March 9. Declining it and dumping Wallace would open up nearly $6 million in salary cap space, but that doesn't sound like it's in the Ravens' plans.
"Circumstances dictate that, so every one of those guys is in a little bit different position and is a different story," Harbaugh said. "Mike Wallace, to me, was a big, integral part of our team last year. Mike Wallace is a top-flight competitor. Mike Wallace is a guy that has a chip on his shoulder, right there. That's what you love about him. The guy wants to compete, he wants to be great. And he works that way.
"I want Mike Wallace on our football team. Circumstances, contracts, salary caps, all that, are another conversation you have about every single guy. My anticipation is that Mike Wallace will be a part of our team. I know he's working to be a part of our team and I'm planning on having him back next year."
When it all shakes out ahead of March 9, the Ravens figure to have more salary cap flexibility than they've enjoyed in some time. But their space is still dwarfed by what most teams in the league have. According to the website overthecap.com, 23 teams have more than $20 million of cap space. A dozen teams have more than $40 million of room.
The circumstances will make it difficult for the Ravens to fulfill their myriad needs in free agency, but Harbaugh was undeterred, pointing to an advantage he believe his team has over many other organizations: the presence of a Super Bowl-winning quarterback on the roster.
Harbaugh, though, acknowledged the team needs to strengthen its roster around quarterback Joe Flacco.
"There's no doubt in my mind that we will contend for a championship next year," Harbaugh said. "We talked about the secondary, our numbers are down there. We'll go to work there. We'll work on the front seven, too. We lost Zach Orr, we're replacing that [weak-side] linebacker. Across the board, we need to improve everywhere we can.
"The biggest thing, I think, in terms of where we are as a football team, is that we have a quarterback. We have a championship-caliber quarterback. We have a guy we can go win with. We have a guy that's capable of carrying a football team and has done it in the past, and we need to do everything we can to put a football team around our championship-caliber quarterback."
Harbaugh didn't break any new ground in discussing the Ravens' needs. He mentioned adding playmakers on offense and another inside linebacker, solidifying the backup quarterback situation with Ryan Mallett heading to free agency, and he particularly stressed making necessary improvements on the back end.
"If you look at our roster, we're thin in the secondary across the board. That's corner and safety," Harbaugh said. "We're going to have to add players at corner and safety. Free agency, draft, guys on the roster right now — we've got to bolster that whole area."
The Ravens coach didn't specifically bring up a pass rusher, but it's not a secret that's a priority as well. Team officials will get a better look at the draft's top pass rushers later this week. They'll be at the Combine through Sunday.
When they return to Baltimore, the two-day negotiation window before free agency will be hours away.