Outside linebacker Paul Kruger emerged as a dangerous pass rusher this season, relentlessly tormenting quarterbacks. Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe tapped into his potential as a versatile three-down defender, proving capable of chasing down running backs or blitzing quarterbacks. And cornerback Cary Williams played well, entrusted with guarding opponents' top receivers after Lardarius Webb tore his anterior cruciate ligament.
Although all three young defenders are in their prime and pivotal to the Ravens' bid to reach and win the Super Bowl heading into Sunday's AFC championship game against the New England Patriots, this could be their final game playing for the AFC North champions.
Due to a tight salary-cap situation that could become even more problematic if the Ravens are unable to hammer out a long-term deal with quarterback Joe Flacco to avoid using a $14.6 million franchise tag to retain him, the team could struggle to even retain one of the defensive trio of unrestricted free agents. The salary cap isn't expected to go up much from the $120.6 million level of this past season.
"When a team has success like the Ravens, they're always going to feel better about extending their guys if they can," said former Green Bay Packers vice president and chief negotiator Andrew Brandt, an NFL business analyst for ESPN. "At the end of the day, it comes down to decisions made after the emotion of the season has died down. They're difficult choices about a group of good, young players.
"They've got quality players, but the key for them is prioritizing. Beyond Flacco, where do you spend your energy and money? They've obviously got some tough choices facing them."
Bracing for free agency, Ellerbe recently hired Georgia-based agent Hadley Engelhard. And Kruger is switching to Athletes First, a large California firm that's the fourth agency to represent him since he entered the league as a second-round draft pick from Utah in 2009.
In particular, Kruger's star is rising after his career-high nine sacks in the regular season and 2 1/2 more in the playoffs.
Pass rushers tend to receive big-money contract offers, even situational ones like Kruger.
Last year, Kamerion Wimbley signed a $35 million deal with the Tennessee Titans and Mark Anderson received $28 million from the Buffalo Bills.
Although Kruger prefers to remain in Baltimore, he could potentially command offers in the $35 million to $40 million range that the Ravens can't afford to match.
"There's nothing I want more than to remain a Raven, but I haven't really thought about it," Kruger said. "It's an awesome place to play. I would love to be here."
Strong safety Bernard Pollard is certain that Kruger is going to cash in on the open market.
"Paul's setting himself up for the future," Pollard said. "I think he has a good shot at breaking the bank because this league, this team, we want pass rushers. We want guys who can rush the quarterback and Paul is a heck of a guy to do that."
So much hinges on the pending offseason negotiations between Ravens vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty and Flacco's agent, Joe Linta, who has repeatedly labeled the former Delaware standout a "top five elite quarterback."
If the Ravens have to use the franchise tag on Flacco by a March 4 deadline, it will make it harder to keep their defense together.
"It all starts with the quarterback," said Brandt, who's also a professor at The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. "They're obviously not going to let him go, so it's either sign him to a long-term deal or franchise him. He's their No. 1 priority. How much cash and cap does that leave for the remaining group?"
With 42 contracts on the books for 2013, not including the $4.35 million the Ravens will save with inside linebacker Ray Lewis' pending retirement, Baltimore is already at $107.396 million in salary-cap commitments for next season. That includes the $1.182 million the Ravens are allowed to carry over to next season, and $1.8 million in remaining dead money for former Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff even though he's no longer on the roster.
The savings that will be realized by the end of Lewis' career could allow the Ravens the option to keep Ellerbe.
With 89 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks, Ellerbe's value has skyrocketed, especially since Lewis is departing and Jameel McClain has to prove he's healthy again after a spinal cord contusion. However, Ellerbe could cost over twice as much as McClain's $10.5 million contract, which he signed last year.
"Everything that I could possibly want is here, but it's a business," Ellerbe said. "It's not up to me. If it was up to me, I'd be here."
Williams gambled on himself before the season by rejecting the Ravens' offer of a three-year, $15 million contract extension.
He's expected to make more than that as a free agent, possibly in another NFL city, following a respectable season where he had 75 tackles, four interceptions and 17 pass deflections.
With two interceptions against Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning in last Saturday's game in the AFC divisional round, Corey Graham is proving to be a capable second cornerback if Williams leaves. Plus, Webb is expected to be recovered by next season.
Williams isn't giving up hope on staying in Baltimore, but he is realistic about the situation.
"Most importantly is to impress these guys," Williams said. "If it impresses others, that's cool as well."
The Ravens' players with the largest salary-cap figures for next season are outside linebacker Terrell Suggs ($13.02 million), defensive tackle Haloti Ngata ($11.5 million) and wide receiver Anquan Boldin ($7.5 million). Suggs and Ngata are both potential candidates to restructure their deals to lower their cap figures.
Boldin is due a $6 million base salary, fullback Vonta Leach has a $4.33 million salary-cap figure, and Pro Bowl return specialist Jacoby Jones has a $4.9 million salary-cap figure and a $4 million base salary. Jones could be due a contract extension that might lower his cap figure for 2013 by spreading out the money.
If Boldin and Leach don't lower their amounts through pay cuts or contract extensions, they could become unwanted cap casualties.
Should veteran center Matt Birk retire or be cut, it would free up $2.05 million in cap savings for the Ravens. Another $1.2 million can be saved if guard Bobbie Williams is off the roster.
Pending business also includes assigned projected tender levels and corresponding draft pick compensation for restricted free-agent tight ends Dennis Pitta ($2.023 million, second-round) and Ed Dickson ($1.323 million, original third-round), defensive end Arthur Jones ($2.023 million) and others. The Ravens could non-tender offensive lineman Ramon Harewood and safety Emanuel Cook and long snapper Morgan Cox, and then re-sign Cox to the veteran minimum to save money.
The restricted free agent tenders and exclusive-rights free agent tenders all count against the salary cap and will add up.
The Ravens have to decide whether to try to keep free safety Ed Reed, a 34-year-old former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, whose $44.5 million contract is expiring. If Reed and Baltimore can't agree on a deal, he's expected to weigh retirement against possibly finishing his career with another NFL team.
Once the season ends, the Ravens are expected to aggressively try to kick-start contract discussions with Flacco and attempt to hold onto their other free agents. Free agency begins March 12.
"It's all about prioritizing," Brandt said. "Each team, has their own internal mechanism for how to sign players. I know Pat Moriarty very well. He does a good job. He works well with Ozzie Newsome and figures out what needs to be done.
"It's really about understanding how to spend your money and working from the top down from ownership to the general manager to the coach. This is a very important offseason for the Ravens."