Needing to clear salary cap space and unable to find a willing trade partner, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week “mutually parted ways” with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, a six-time Pro Bowl selection. That there’s strong interest across the NFL in the 31-year-old should not come as a surprise; that the Ravens are reportedly among those suitors, however, is something of an eye-opener.
McCoy told ESPN on Friday that he wants to join a "contender," saying, "I want to win. I'm not worried about where I'm living." The Ravens handled the Buccaneers late last season en route to an AFC North title. But there remain questions, more so with finances than with fit.
McCoy was set to make $13 million in his 10th season with Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers’ newly signed replacement, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, signed a one-year deal worth up to $10 million. If McCoy is willing to take a pay cut in the interest of bolstering a playoff contender — the former No. 3 overall pick has not advanced to the postseason in his career — what might he realistically settle for?
The Ravens have little wiggle room. Free-agent signings Earl Thomas and Mark Ingram II were not cheap; their salary cap hits rank among the 13 biggest on the team for 2019. With five of the Ravens’ eight draft picks signed, general manager Eric DeCosta has about $13 million in space available. Deals for unsigned picks Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Jaylon Ferguson and Miles Boykin, once complete, will eat approximately another $2 million.
With conventional wisdom dictating that NFL front offices leave themselves at least a few million dollars for emergency midseason signings, the Ravens will unlikely be able to offer McCoy a contract worth $10 million-plus in 2019. (The Browns certainly could, and perhaps the Bengals, too.) DeCosta could free up space by restructuring contracts already on the books, delaying guaranteed money until years ahead, but his strategy so far with new signings and extensions has favored “flat” annual rates.
"The only time we consider restructuring guys’ deals is [if] there is a player that comes available that we think has great value and is worth us restructuring a deal to get it done," former general manager Ozzie Newsome, who once called the strategy a “last resort,” said in 2013. "But it has to be a player that we think has a pretty good chance of playing out his contract, because that’s when you get in trouble. If you restructure a deal, then all the sudden that player’s abilities fall off the cliff and you have to let him go, then you have to eat all that acceleration right away."
Even with the big names returning along the Ravens’ defensive line, as well as those still yet to break out, there is space for a talent like McCoy. In Tampa Bay, he recorded at least six sacks every year from 2012 to 2018; Brandon Williams, Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and Brent Urban combined for 3½ last season in Baltimore. Michael Pierce finished the year without one.
The Ravens are rich with interior defensive linemen, but there’s little overlap with McCoy’s best-utilized deployment. Williams and Pierce typically line up over the center or in a center-guard gap; fifth-round pick Daylon Mack did the same at Texas A&M.
According to Pro Football Focus, McCoy has had just 290 career snaps at nose tackle, compared with 2,767 at defensive tackle and 1,010 at defensive end. Last season, he worked primarily as a three-technique defensive tackle, aligned on the outside shoulder of the guard, a position that allows him to shoot upfield and pressure the pocket. In 14 games, McCoy had six sacks and 21 quarterback hits, the latter of which would have been second most on the Ravens.
Urban, now with the Tennessee Titans, Henry and Wormley shared most of the snaps last season at the three-technique, normally flanked by an edge rusher like Terrell Suggs and a nose tackle like Williams. Given the Ravens’ offseason losses — Suggs joined the Arizona Cardinals, Za’Darius Smith the Green Bay Packers — and the defense’s schematic flexibility, it’s unclear how the Ravens would want to roll out their best front seven.
Would coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale call on Henry for pass-rushing downs almost exclusively? Would Wormley continue to be a rotational player, helping McCoy to stay fresh but never earning the lion’s share of snaps? If Ferguson proves most useful as a down lineman, rather than a stand-up linebacker coming off the edge, how does that affect the Ravens’ alignment?
Those are questions for possibly another day. The Ravens will pay their interior defensive linemen over $20 million this season, according to Over The Cap. Now they have to decide the value of adding McCoy — and convince him it’s the right price at the right place, too.