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With free agency set to officially start, the Ravens could get creative with their salary cap picture

At his introductory news conference last year, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta was asked about his vision for the franchise’s future. In many ways, he explained, it wasn’t too different from his conception of the past.

“I think we've done a lot of really good things in the past, and we would be foolish to just change things overnight,” he said. “I think we always want to be a physical, big, fast, aggressive, disciplined football team. We always want to play with passion. We always want to have the ability to impose our will on our opponents.

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Then he pivoted, ever so slightly: “I think we want to be financially responsible when it comes to the salary cap.” Notice the word missing there?

Under general manager Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens had not always been financially responsible. Signing stars like Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata to contract extensions? Responsible. Signing them to back-loaded contracts that ultimately forced the Ravens into salary cap corners? Not always responsible.

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With the start of the NFL’s new league year and the official opening of free agency at 4 p.m. Wednesday, DeCosta’s team-building efforts could be driven by two divergent forces: what he’d wanted to do and what he needs to do to meet the $198.2 million hard cap.

While an exact accounting of the Ravens’ cap space is unavailable, it is undeniably tight. According to salary database Spotrac, after trading for Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell, trading away tight end Hayden Hurst and agreeing to sign Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Michael Brockers in recent days, the Ravens have less than $300,000 available — an untenable amount, given the millions the team will need to spend on draft picks and other lower-tier players.

That figure will change dramatically and often. Campbell’s cap hit will be less than the $15 million the Jaguars were set to absorb in the final year of his contract. The Ravens are not expected to exercise the option on defensive back Brandon Carr’s 2020 contract this week, freeing up $6 million. Contract extensions for defensive end Jihad Ward, defensive tackle Justin Ellis, and wide receiver and return specialist De’Anthony Thomas are also not reflected in Spotrac’s estimate.

The NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement might make DeCosta’s path to financial viability possible. According to the Houston Chronicle, Brockers’ cap hit for this year is just $5 million — a $1.5 million base salary, plus his prorated $3.5 million signing bonus — before accelerating to $12.5 million for each of the following two seasons.

Such cap maneuvering for 2021 would not have been possible last offseason. Consider a few of Decosta’s recent signings. In running back Mark Ingram II’s contract, the base salary jumps from $2 million in 2019 to $4 million in 2020 to $5 million in 2021. For tight end Nick Boyle, who also signed last offseason, it goes from $1 million in 2019 to $4.5 million in 2020 to $5.5 million in 2021.

Under the since-eliminated “30% rule” included in the previous CBA, teams were not allowed to increase a player’s 2021 salary by more than 30% over his 2020 figure. The measure, implemented to keep teams from reallocating huge cap hits into potentially uncapped seasons after the CBA’s 2020 expiration, meant that a quarterback earning a $10 million salary in 2020 couldn’t get more than $13 million in 2021. (Contract bonuses were not part of the calculus.)

Now team officials like DeCosta have some wiggle room, not only with free agents — Brockers can make $1.5 million this season and $9 million the next two — but players already under contract, too. The Ravens have typically restructured contracts only as a last-ditch measure. This week, it could be a smart approach.

Take Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas III, for instance. If the Ravens convert his 2020 salary from $10 million to $5 million, bumping up his 2021 charge from $11 million to $16 million, they’d secure $5 million in savings this year — and add $5 million to next year’s ledger, when the cap is again expected to rise.

It could take some convincing, and potentially an increase in guaranteed money. It would also mark a change in strategy for DeCosta, who so far has handed out multiyear contracts with fairly stable salary increases. But if that’s what it takes to assemble a Super Bowl-caliber roster, the Ravens will consider it worth doing.

“That's really the goal, is to build the best, most balanced team,” DeCosta said last month at the scouting combine. “We've got needs. We've got needs in the front seven. We've got needs in the offensive line. We've got needs at receiver, inside linebacker, and we're going to try to fill as many of those needs as we can. ...

“We probably wish we had more money to spend. We don’t.”

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