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With NFL’s 2021 salary cap set, Ravens have about $20 million in space. That’s less than it sounds.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about his approach to hiring new coaches to his staff.

On Tuesday, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta was asked how his team would approach this year’s shrinking salary cap. His honest answer: “We don’t know what the salary cap is going to actually be yet.”

He knew it wouldn’t be any less than $180 million. A day later, he knew for sure it also wouldn’t be much more. On Wednesday, the NFL informed teams of their 2021 spending limit: $182.5 million, an 8% drop from $198.2 million in 2020. After seven straight years of $10 million-plus cap jumps, league revenues tumbled last season amid the coronavirus pandemic, forcing a one-year shrinkage.

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The Ravens are left with about $20 million in cap space, a middle-of-the-road figure that does not account for inevitable expenditures. The Ravens will have to set aside about $5 million for draft picks; several million more for in-season signings, practice squad elevations and roster elevations; and make space for restricted and exclusive-rights free agents like running back Gus Edwards. A second-round tender for Edwards is worth $3.4 million; the team could also sign him to an extension.

According to Russell Street Report, the Ravens’ projected moves would leave them with only $3.7 million in usable salary cap space. They could carve out more room by restructuring contracts, which would push the salary owed to players into later years, or by releasing players. Cutting defensive tackle Brandon Williams and inside linebacker L.J. Fort, for instance, would create $7.5 million and $2.3 million in cap relief, respectively.

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With a wave of veterans expected to be released over the next week, the Ravens could find value on the free-agent market. New York Giants veteran guard Kevin Zeitler, the team’s most consistent offensive lineman in 2020, was released Wednesday, as was New Orleans Saints wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who had 61 catches for 726 yards in 14 games last season.

But with extensions for homegrown players considered a priority in Baltimore, the Ravens will have to weigh internal investments against external acquisitions. Teams must be in compliance with the reduced salary cap by 4 p.m. next Wednesday, when the NFL’s new league year begins.

“The hardest thing is to assess veteran players that are being terminated now versus the clump of free agents that will be available next week,” DeCosta said Tuesday. “Are the top guys going to get paid equivalent to what they normally would be paid in any other given year? Is that going to change? There are a lot of different factors. Some of that is just a gut thing. Some of that is analytics. Some of that is trying to assess getting as much information as possible from different sources and different people.”

“The honest answer is, we really don’t know. You try to prepare for this, and you try to predict, but it’s not that much different from trying to predict the first round of a draft. You can get pretty close. I can get pretty close, but there’s always going to be some surprises and changes and different things that happen along the way. We’re trying to do that right now; we’re trying to assess what the next 14 days are going to look like.”

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