The age of key veterans and a lack of salary cap space forced the Ravens into bargain-hunting mode as they overhauled a championship squad. A similar scenario probably will unfold after this season because of contractual commitments to six prominent starters.
The salary cap figures for defensive tackle Haloti Ngata ($16 million), quarterback Joe Flacco ($14.8 million), rush linebacker Terrell Suggs ($12.4 million), cornerback Lardarius Webb ($10.5 million), running back Ray Rice ($8.75 million) and guard Marshal Yanda ($8.45 million) account for a combined $70.9 million for the 2014 fiscal year.
The salary cap limit of $123 million for this year is expected to rise next year by only a few million dollars, and the Ravens are already at $122.831 million in cap commitments for 51 contracts.
A tight budget could make it extremely difficult to retain many unrestricted free agents, including offensive tackle Michael Oher, tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, cornerback Corey Graham, middle linebacker Daryl Smith, defensive end Arthur Jones, strong safety James Ihedigbo and wide receiver-kick returner Jacoby Jones. And the Ravens might not be able to expand their payroll with high-dollar free-agent acquisitions.
"Our system forces you to make tough choices, and good, smart teams like the Ravens do an excellent job of deciding who the core guys are that they're going to keep," former New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said. "At the end of the day, you try to keep as many guys as possible with the knowledge that you can't hold onto everybody because there's a limit to what you can spend. It's all done within a certain context.
"One of the keys to sustainability is to correctly evaluate your own players as far as who to keep and who to let go. That's the nature of football. It's the ultimate team sport. You keep as many good players as mathematically possible."
It was instructive to see how the Ravens maneuvered last offseason, following a blueprint that was plotted out months before during a series of meetings with top team officials.
The Ravens were aware that middle linebacker Ray Lewis and center Matt Birk would probably retire, that the market value of linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe could boost their market value beyond their price range and that free safety Ed Reed would likely leave. And wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded to the San Francisco 49ers after he declined to take a $2 million pay cut from his scheduled $6 million base salary.
Last offseason, the main priority was locking up quarterback Joe Flacco, the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, to a $120.6 million contract that included a $29 million signing bonus and $51 million in guaranteed money.
Other than splurging for Pro Bowl pass rusher Elvis Dumervil via a $35 million maximum value contract when he was unexpectedly cut by the Denver Broncos following a contract dispute, the Ravens brought in affordable free agents, such as defensive tackle Chris Canty ($8 million), free safety Michael Huff ($6 million) and Smith ($2.125 million).
Now another difficult situation looms for general manager Ozzie Newsome and vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty.
"I would say it's maybe even tougher than last year," said former NFL agent Joel Corry, who analyzes the business of football for National Football Post. "It's definitely not an easy cap situation in Baltimore. This is going to be a pivotal offseason for them. It's one of those situations again where they're not going to be able to keep everybody.
"They're going to have to prioritize. Hopefully, they will continue to draft well or find some bargain free agents, or both. Ozzie has a proven track record that he can reload rather than rebuild. He doesn't get too sentimental, which is smart advice to follow."
One of the biggest decisions on the horizon for the Ravens is how to handle Suggs' contract situation.
The 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year will be entering the final year of a $62.5 million contract and is due a $7.8 million base salary. Suggs is healthy and back in optimal condition after plummeting to a career-low two sacks last season when he was hampered by a torn Achilles and torn biceps.
If Suggs regains his old form, the Ravens could be motivated to give him a contract extension, which could lower his salary-cap figure.
"To me, the big issues is, 'What do you do with Suggs?" Corry said. "It's critical whether he's the 2011 Suggs or the Suggs from last year who rushed back from the Achilles and wasn't the player he was. He's already over 30. The only pass rusher over 30 who has signed a deal that averages at least $10 million a year is Julius Peppers. The Ravens could extend him if he plays well. If he doesn't play well, the Ravens have shown they're not afraid to have people take a paycut or cut somebody."
Ngata seems rejuvenated after spraining his knee in the Super Bowl, shifting inside to nose tackle, where he's dominated in the past. Under his $61 million blockbuster deal, Ngata is due base salaries of $8.5 million in 2014 and 2015. His deal looks unlikely to be adjusted.
"Ozzie likes to keep things as is," Corry said. "Unless Ngata's level of play drops, there's more immediacy with Suggs. If Ngata's going to be dominant, he's going to want to be paid that way."
With Pitta recovering from a dislocated, fractured right hip that required surgery and Dickson now the starter, only one is likely to be back after this season.
Corry predicted that Arthur Jones likely will leave one year after a breakthrough season, and Smith could become expensive if he has a resurgent season.
"Re-signing Jones is a long shot," Corry said. "Smith is in a 16-game audition. How do you sign him with no cap room?"
The Ravens are not in contract talks with Oher. Preliminary discussions last year went nowhere. The Ravens could save some money, since Oher is a right tackle, which would make him cheaper than a left tackle.
"It's a 50-50 proposition whether Oher comes back, depending on what kind of year he has," Corry said. "To be determined."
Plus, former University of Maryland wide receiver Torrey Smith will be eligible for a contract extension for the first time after this season three years into his rookie deal as he becomes the top receiver with Boldin gone.
"What if Torrey breaks out and wants Mike Wallace money like $60 million" Corry said. "That could be tough to manage."
However, a former NFL executive expressed confidence in the Ravens' ability to navigate through choppy financial waters.
"The Ravens have always done a good job setting priorities and principles in building their team and not changing course due to the emotion or impulse of the moment," former Green Bay Packers vice president Andrew Brandt said. "Like all good teams, they're willing to move on from popular players and make unpopular decisions for the greater good of the team. Ozzie sets a nice course, and Pat Moriarty does a good job executing it on the financial side. They'll be fine."
Ravens' 2014 salary cap
The Ravens have 51 contracts and salary cap charges for a total of $122.831 million for the 2014 fiscal year under NFL accounting systems. The current NFL limit is $123 million, with only a gradual increase expected. Six players count for a combined total of $70.9 million against the salary cap for 2014. Here's a look at those players' salary cap figures and base salaries:
Player Salary cap Salary NT Haloti Ngata $16M $8.5M QB Joe Flacco $14.8M $6M LB Terrell Suggs $12.4M $7.8M CB Lardarius Webb $10.5M $7.5M RB Ray Rice $8.75M $4M G Marshal Yanda $8.45M $5.5M