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An FAQ guide to the Ravens’ offseason: 12 questions about team’s next steps

On Thursday, the Ravens finalized their first big offseason acquisition, announcing their trade for Jacksonville Jaguars Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell. Other arrivals are imminent. More news is coming.

But with the NFL’s first wave of free agency over, the Ravens can afford to be deliberate. They will get their financials in order, scour the market for value, move forward with their predraft planning and continue to practice social distancing.

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As roster turnover continues in Baltimore and around the league, here’s a few questions you might have been wondering about while sheltering in place — and maybe a few you didn’t.

When will the deal for Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Michael Brockers be announced?

In due time. Few contracts, big or small, have been finalized; deals are contingent on players passing a physical. But with coronavirus concerns keeping teams from traveling to conduct medical examinations, officials are having to rely on neutral physicians to provide accurate information. And team facilities are closed to players through at least March 30, meaning team medical staffs can’t administer physicals to even local players.

NFL teams have every reason to be as particular about their physicals as the Orioles have been. If you’re paying free-agent defensive end Jadeveon Clowney record-breaking money, you want to make sure that his surgically repaired knee, or any body part that’s even been coughed on, is medically sound. These are franchise-changing investments.

Do the Ravens have the room to sign anyone else?

At this moment, probably not anyone you’d count on to start in Week 1.

According to Ravens salary cap expert Brian McFarland of Russell Street Report, the team has nearly $20 million in salary cap space — and that figure does not include the cap hits of Campbell, who’s reportedly set to sign a two-year deal, or of defensive end Jihad Ward and defensive tackle Justin Ellis, who’ve re-signed. So that space could be more than halved.

And with the increases in minimum salaries under the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement, the estimated charge for the nine picks the Ravens have in next month’s draft is just under $8 million, according to salary database Spotrac. Even considering that only the players with the 51 largest cap hits are accounted for in cap calculations, that leaves very little wiggle room.

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Could they make a move to free up cap space and re-sign someone noteworthy?

Of course. The Ravens, like every other team, can restructure most contracts by converting part of a player’s base salary into a signing bonus, deferring payment until later seasons. It’s an especially tempting prospect this year, with the salary cap expected to raise tens of millions of dollars next year. (That is, unless the coronavirus pandemic wrecks the NFL season.)

But at some point, the bill becomes due. Restructure one too many contracts, and you wind up in salary cap hell. The millions the Ravens take on in restructured contracts next year are millions they wouldn’t have to give All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley or cornerback Marlon Humphrey on a contract extension.

It’s a complex calculus for general manager Eric DeCosta and his front office. With Lamar Jackson on a team-friendly rookie deal for potentially two more years, the Ravens are well positioned to surround him with strong pieces. But when, and by what means?

Which Ravens are still free agents?

Ward and Ellis have indicated on social media that they’ve agreed to contract extensions, but their deals haven’t been finalized. Center Matt Skura, a restricted free agent, received a one-year tender projected to be worth about $2.1 million.

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Still on the market are cornerback Jimmy Smith, defensive back Brandon Carr, inside linebackers Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwuasor, outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, defensive back-linebacker Anthony Levine Sr., safety Brynden Trawick, defensive tackle Domata Peko Sr., wide receiver Chris Moore and offensive lineman Hroniss Grasu.

Offensive linemen Parker Ehringer and Randin Crecelius and cornerback Fish Smithson are also free agents after not receiving restricted-free-agent tenders.

Where could the Ravens find value on the free-agent market?

There’s always a chance that they find someone reasonable in this second wave of cuts. San Francisco 49ers starting guard Mike Person and Los Angeles Rams outside linebacker Clay Matthews, two proven and relatively cheap players at positions of need, were released Thursday.

There are still talented edge rushers available, including Clowney, Markus Golden and Everson Griffen, but they’re all likely out of the Ravens’ price range. Almost every free-agent wide receiver remains unsigned, too, with demand seemingly driven down by the talent available in next month’s draft.

If they don’t sign another edge rusher, is Matthew Judon’s return guaranteed?

Nothing is guaranteed. Judon hasn’t even signed the franchise tag tender. He has until July 15 to sign a multiyear contract — or for the Ravens to find a trade partner willing to sign him to one. But from the July 15 deadline until the end of the 2020 season, Judon can sign only the Ravens’ one-year, $15.8 million tender.

Who might trade for Judon?

After the rush on pass rushers — just about every top-tier free agent was designated with the franchise tag or signed a multiyear contract worth at least $10 million annually — there aren’t a lot of potential suitors.

Of the 31 NFL teams outside Baltimore, only six don’t have a pass-rush threat with at least a $10 million cap hit in 2020, according to Spotrac. Not a lot of general managers can afford to have 15% of their cap space tied up in two pass rushers, even if they’re playing different positions. There are too many needs elsewhere.

And the teams that aren’t heavily invested in a pass rusher have good reason to stay away. The Oakland Raiders drafted defensive end Clelin Ferrell at No. 4 overall last season. The Miami Dolphins are rebuilding and would be foolish to throw away even a second-round draft pick. The New England Patriots build their roster by buying low and selling high. The Seattle Seahawks are hoping to hold on to Clowney.

Which leaves just two other teams lacking a premium pass rusher. The Tennessee Titans, with over $36 million in cap space, according to Spotrac, just traded away Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jurrell Casey for a seventh-round pick, an apparent salary dump. The New York Jets, rumored to be in the mix for Clowney, have over $37 million.

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What would the Ravens want in return?

This is the sticking point. DeCosta has said that he wants a strong pass rush. Signing Brockers helps a little. Trading for Campbell helps a lot. But if last season proved anything, it was that the Ravens’ weak interior pass rush ultimately limited their outside pass rush.

There needs to be synergy, and that’s possible only if the Ravens have a strong edge rusher. For all of the criticisms of Judon, many of which are unfounded, he has produced year after year in Baltimore. Outside linebacker Tyus Bowser and Jaylon Ferguson showed flashes last season, but could they be counted on to spearhead a pass rush?

Because a trade probably requires them to do so. If the Ravens are fielding offers for Judon, the packages probably include a second-round pick, at best, or a solid to promising young player. Not both. Ignore the Kansas City Chiefs’ trade last season for defensive end Frank Clark, which got the Seahawks a low first-round pick, a 2020 second-round pick and a slightly worse third-round selection in a pick swap. That was a fleecing.

Two other 2019 deals provide a better framework. In exchange for Pro Bowl defensive end Dee Ford, whom Kansas City had tagged less than two weeks earlier, the Chiefs got a second-round pick from the 49ers. For Clowney, the Houston Texans got two average Seahawks outside linebackers and a third-round pick.

Why not trade Judon for another tagged pass rusher?

Because a tagged player can’t be traded unless he signs the franchise tender, and if he’s getting traded, it’s because he’s satisfied with his new team’s contract offer. In a one-for-one swap, both players have to get what they want.

If the Ravens couldn’t agree to terms on an extension with Judon before the deadline, they might chafe at paying other tagged pass rushers top dollar. And even if they were willing to sign, say, Buccaneers outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett to a contract worth $20 million annually, Tampa Bay might consider the players’ value unequal and ask for a draft pick, too.

Given the Ravens’ cap situation and how highly they value draft picks, it’s hard to imagine such a deal getting done.

Could the Ravens trade up in the first round?

The Ravens have pressing needs at inside linebacker and wide receiver, plus smaller concerns elsewhere along the roster, like guard and cornerback.

But even at No. 28 overall, they can get good value. There should be at least one first-round-caliber wide receiver available, and with the Raiders and Jaguars both shelling out for an inside linebacker in free agency, the Ravens could have both LSU’s Patrick Queen and Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray fall to them.

With nine picks in the 2020 draft and a strong roster, the Ravens have the capital to move up from No. 28. But the cost could be prohibitive. According to the often-cited draft pick value chart devised by former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, the Ravens could trade up to as high as the No. 6 pick. All it would take is most of their picks.

If they traded their Nos. 28 and 55 picks, they could get up to No. 16. If they traded their other second-round pick, too, they could get up to No. 10. But that’s not how the Ravens like to do business.

Given their needs at receiver, could the Ravens sign free agent Antonio Brown?

Yes.

Should they?

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