Because of NFL scheduling rotations, the Ravens might not see Joe Flacco again for over two years. The Ravens won’t face the Denver Broncos, where Flacco’s reportedly set to be traded next month, in the regular season this year. It’s not known whether the two teams will meet next year, either. Only a 2021 date is certain.
But in parting ways with their longtime starting quarterback, an 11-year veteran and former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, the Ravens will see that a Flacco-less life has its benefits. Without his onerous contract, handed off to Denver in exchange for a draft pick, the Ravens’ front office has given first-year general manager Eric DeCosta coveted financial flexibility ahead of an intriguing offseason.
Even well before rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson helped lead the Ravens to an AFC North title and their first playoff appearance since 2014, it was a foregone conclusion that Flacco had played for the last time in Baltimore. But his departure was important for more than just symbolic reasons.
As with most things in life, it’s important to follow the money to see why.
Flacco won’t play for the Ravens in 2019, so why do they owe him so much money?
Because of Flacco’s massive contract, he was guaranteed $16 million in his remaining prorated signing-bonus money. Compare that with, say, Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, who's set to be paid $8.25 million next season, the final year of his four-year contract, but is guaranteed only $1.75 million, all from his prorated signing bonus.
So why was getting rid of Flacco’s contract so important?
The Ravens would create $10.5 million in cap space by trading Flacco when the league year begins March 13 — not an insignificant amount for a team looking to rebuild its offense around Jackson and his team-friendly rookie contract.
There is one wrinkle, though: If it’s designated as a post-June 1 trade, the Ravens would split the dead-money charge over 2019 and 2020. Such a move would net the Ravens $18.5 million in cap savings this year, but those savings wouldn’t become available until well after free agency’s busy season has concluded.
What was the benefit to trading Flacco this early?
Had the Ravens waited too long to trade him, or simply cut him, they would have ended up with little else but the cap savings. But in swinging a deal with the Broncos, the Ravens reportedly received Denver’s first fourth-round pick.
Was that a good enough return?
It’s certainly better than nothing. As an ESPN analysis pointed out after Flacco’s trade, this is a buyer’s market for NFL teams seeking a quarterback this offseason. Because of recent investments in first-round picks, the sustained success of aging veterans and the commitment from teams to young or high-paid quarterbacks, fewer than 10 teams entered the offseason with a somewhat pressing need for a new quarterback.
And given the handful of quarterbacks expected to be taken in the first round of this year’s draft, all far cheaper than Flacco, the Ravens were fortunate to find a trade partner with a sensible offer. They were never going to get the bounties that Sam Bradford (first- and fourth-round picks) and Jimmy Garoppolo (second-round pick) fetched in recent years.
So how many picks do the Ravens have now?
The Ravens are expected to have eight picks entering April’s draft: No. 22 overall (first round), No. 85 overall (third round), a compensatory pick near the end of the third round, two fourth-round picks, a fifth-round pick and two sixth-round picks.
The Ravens traded the No. 52 pick and a fourth-round selection in last year's draft as well as what became the No. 53 pick in this year's draft to the Philadelphia Eagles for the No. 32 pick in 2018. They used that to take Jackson.
What positions need addressing?
Whether through free agency, the draft or internal efforts, the Ravens need improvements most immediately at wide receiver, interior offensive line and edge rusher. But with a number of important free agents set to hit the market, and some others at risk of being cut, there could be even more holes to plug.
How can Flacco’s exit help shore up those weaknesses?
With only Flacco’s dead money counting against the Ravens’ books, their cap room, according to salary website Over the Cap, would rise from about $21 million to about $31 million this offseason. (In the case of a post-June 1 designation, the figure would rise to nearly $40 million.)
The Ravens will continue to reap benefits in 2020 and 2021, the final years of Flacco's megadeal. Next year, their real savings from a regular trade designation would amount to over $28 million, and the year after that, over $24 million, Over the Cap projections show.
That money could be allocated for any number of purposes. Most urgently, the Ravens hope to bring back Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who’s likely to receive offers for a long-term deal worth well over $10 million annually. The Ravens could also designate Mosley with the franchise tag, an expensive one-year proposition.
At his introductory news conference, DeCosta also stressed the importance of retaining young, talented players. Outside linebacker Matthew Judon, after his second straight season with at least seven sacks, is in line for a big payday after next season, the final year of his rookie deal. Tavon Young has regularly produced in an NFL that requires consistent slot cornerbacks. Even Justin Tucker, already one of the NFL's highest-paid kickers, will be an unrestricted free agent in 2020.
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Then there are the free agents the Ravens will sign, the rookies they’ll draft and the option years they’ll pick up. All need to be paid somehow.