The NFL’s mostly frozen free-agent market is set to thaw soon.
Starting Wednesday, the signing of unrestricted free agents will not count against teams in the NFL’s compensatory-pick formula for 2020, accelerating the pursuit of players who have not found a home since the league year began in mid-March.
Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta, like his peers around the league, will weigh his options against their value. “We’re not constrained by anything at this point,” he told The Baltimore Sun. “We can make the team better if the situation arises.”
Edge rusher and inside linebacker are the most obvious needs, and the Ravens have the means to improve there, if only marginally. But every move has a cost, from limiting a team’s salary cap flexibility to eliminating a compensatory draft pick. (The Ravens are projected to be awarded three next year.)
Here’s where the team stands as the offseason pace picks back up:
Room to grow
According to a salary cap projection by Russell Street Report, pending guard Marshal Yanda’s new contract extension, the Ravens should have about $11.3 million in cap space after signing their eight draft picks. They’ll need several million dollars in space entering the season, too, as is common practice. That’s enough wiggle room to add further help, but just how much depends on which free agents they target and how their market develops. Some positions are more expensive than others.
Take Ezekiel Ansah, the former Detroit Lions defensive end who visited the Ravens late last month and is considered one of the top two free agents still available, along with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. DeCosta last month called Ansah “very impressive, as you’d expect,” but offered no clues as to the extent of the team’s interest. “We’ll see where it leads,” he said.
A former No. 5 overall draft pick with 48 career sacks, Ansah has the pedigree and the production to create a bidding war. Sports contract website Spotrac's calculated market value for Ansah entering free agency, given the premium on pass rushers, was a four-year deal worth $13.6 million annually.
After going unsigned over the NFL’s first two months of free agency, Ansah figures to receive less-valuable offers. A four-year contract, in particular, is unlikely. He turns 30 later this month. A nagging shoulder injury limited him to just seven games last season. According to the NFL Network, Ansah's surgically repaired labrum has no structural issues, but he still needs to rebuild his strength and likely wouldn't be fully cleared until mid-August.
An active market depleted the Ravens’ pass rush two months ago, and a depressed market is likely their best hope to help replenish it. Ansah has drawn interest from, among others, the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills, two teams with far more money to spend. The Ravens needed patience and good fortune to draft Jaylon Ferguson in the third round. They’ll need to open up their checkbook to get Ansah.
There might not be a better summation of the Ravens’ roster composition and salary-cap allocation than this: The combined 2019 salary cap hit of cornerbacks Jimmy Smith ($15.85 million) and Brandon Carr ($7 million) is higher than the 2019 spending on every Ravens position except offensive line and, of course, defensive backs.
You get what you pay for in the NFL, and the Ravens’ investment in their secondary last season proved smart business. They finished fifth in pass defense and second in average passer rating allowed. The release of Eric Weddle opened space for another, even higher-priced safety, five-time All-Pro Earl Thomas.
Now the Ravens, according to NFL salary cap website Over the Cap, are the only team to rank in the top four leaguewide in cornerback and safety spending for 2019. They have nearly $36 million tied up in cornerbacks, about $4 million more than the runner-up Jacksonville Jaguars, and $22.7 million in safeties, fourth most overall.
Their ranks elsewhere are no surprise. The Ravens are near the bottom in wide receiver spending, though Over the Cap’s $14.4 million figure does not account for first-round pick Marquise “Hollywood” Brown’s eventual deal. Lamar Jackson’s team-friendly rookie contract will keep the team’s financial investment limited through at least 2021. Patrick Onwuasor is now the team’s highest-paid linebacker, at just over $3 million for 2019, and the position’s expenditures account for less than 8% of the Ravens’ salary cap.
And then there’s special teams. The Ravens rank first there, too, according to Spotrac, which is no surprise: Kicker Justin Tucker, punter Sam Koch and long snapper Morgan Cox are among the most consistent players at their respective positions, and the team hasn’t been reluctant to reward them.
The immediate benefits of the Ravens’ transition from Joe Flacco to Jackson last season were obvious. The long-term ramifications of trading away a contract worth an average of $21 million over the next three seasons could be even more important.
According to Over the Cap, the Ravens have about $143 million in salary cap space committed to 2020, not including the team’s new rookie class, a bill that ranks in the middle of the pack. But where the team stands out is not the value of its player contracts but in how many contracts are on the books through next year.
Excluding the rookie class, according to Over the Cap, the Ravens have 49 players on contract through 2020, seventh most in the NFL. Some are more likely to last in Baltimore than others — left tackle Ronnie Stanley is due nearly $13 million after the team exercised his fifth-year option, while backup kicker Kaare Vedvik is unlikely to make it past this September — but it’s a promising outlay.
The Ravens are not devoid of big-money, long-term investments, but for now, they’re spending less than $3 million per player under contract through 2020. Only four other teams, according to Over the Cap, can make that claim. They should have the money to be aggressive over the next year, whether it’s with homegrown talent (Michael Pierce, anyone?) or 2020 free agents.