In early part of offseason, Ravens still have decisions to make

The NFL Scouting Combine is still about two weeks away. Free agency won’t begin in more than a month. The NFL draft won’t take play for more than three months.

There is seemingly never a quiet time in an NFL offseason, but at least for the next couple of weeks, the Ravens aren’t dealing with any league-imposed deadlines or high-profile NFL showcases or events. However, they have plenty to do before the rush of offseason activities begins.

Finalize the coaching staff: A couple of days after receiving the NFL’s Salute to Service award, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh embarked on a trip overseas to visit the troops. When he returns, he’ll finalize his coaching staff, which includes at least two vacancies. The Ravens still need a running backs coach and a wide receivers coach, and there is probably room for Harbaugh to add a couple of coaching assistants or consultants as well. Harbaugh is considering a couple of college coaches as potential assistants so it makes sense to delay the interview process after today’s national signing day.

Using the franchise tag: The Ravens can use the franchise tag as early as Feb. 17 or as late as March 3, giving them plenty of time to ponder the decision. They’ve had success using it in the past as the tag has served as a precursor to long-term deals with Ray Rice, Haloti Ngata and several others. Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said last month that the organization wouldn’t hesitate to use it again this year and the most likely candidate for it (my words not Newsome’s) would be tight end Dennis Pitta. The tag would buy the Ravens some time to work out an extension with Pitta and make sure that the 28-year-old stays in purple for at least one more season at a time where the organization is looking to add weapons for quarterback Joe Flacco not subtract them. But it’s hardly a simple decision. Under the franchise tag, Pitta would make a projected $6.7 million for the 2014 season. That’s a significant salary commitment for a cash-strapped team that has plenty of holes to fill.

Creating some more cap room: The Ravens currently have about $14.5 million of salary cap space and they are obviously going to need more than that to re-sign some of their own unrestricted free agents, solidify the status of their restricted and exclusive rights free agents and then add outside talent. Newsome has already said that the Ravens won’t restructure any deals, a pattern that the organization has clung tightly to in the past. But the team is interested in extending the contract of a couple of veterans, mainly rush linebacker Terrell Suggs. The veteran carries a $12.4 million cap hit for the coming season and team officials haven’t hid from the fact that it will be extremely tough to carry Suggs on his current deal. What’s unclear is whether the Ravens and Suggs will be able to hammer out an extension that will work for both sides, one that will trade short-team salary relief for the Ravens in exchange for more long-term security for Suggs. Suggs, however, is hardly the only long-term Raven whose contract could lead to a parting. Other potential Ravens’ cap casualties including fullback Vonta Leach ($2.3 million salary cap hit), weak-side linebacker Jameel McClain ($4.4 million) and punter Sam Koch ($2.8 million).

Re-signing own free agents: Free agents won’t officially hit the open market until the afternoon of March 11. Ideally for the Ravens, some of their own unrestricted free agents will never reach that point. The Ravens, not well-positioned to win a bidding war when free agency opens, would love to hammer out a deal with a couple of their 13 potential unrestricted free agents over the next three or four weeks though that’s easier said than done. In some cases, players, like Michael Oher or Pitta, have waited four or five years for a chance to see what they are worth on the open market and pick their landing spot. Why would they eschew that opportunity this late in the game and re-sign with the Ravens now rather than at least seeing what’s out there in another month? It is a tough sell indeed, but it is expected that the Ravens will at least make a run at trying to re-sign Pitta, left tackle Eugene Monroe, middle linebacker Daryl Smith and possibly wide receiver/kick returner Jacoby Jones before free agency begins. I’m sure they’ll touch base with the agent for free agent defensive tackle Arthur Jones as well. But for a guy like Jones, who is due his first big payday following a breakout season, it makes no sense to re-sign at this stage. However for players like Smith and Monroe, who played on some bad Jacksonville Jaguars’ teams before coming to the Ravens, they may have enjoyed their first seasons in Baltimore enough where they don’t need to see what else is out there.

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