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Make no mistake, losing Haloti Ngata would be setback for Ravens

It seems some think Halot Ngata could be seamlessly replaced. But why?

At some point soon, probably within the next week, the Ravens will have to make a difficult decision on the future of standout defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

Bringing Ngata back under his current contract, when he’d take up $16 million of cap space, just isn’t realistic, not with the Ravens other needs.

That leaves them with two options: Sign the five-time Pro Bowl selection to a contract extension that will provide immediate salary cap relief and increase the likelihood that Ngata spends his whole career as a Raven; or release him, opening up a ton of a cap space along with a gaping hole in the middle of their defense.

Option one is preferable for both sides. The Ravens still view the 31-year-old as one of the top players in the NFL at his position, and one of the keys to maintaining a dominant run defense. Ngata, meanwhile, has said that he’d love to play his entire career in Baltimore, following in the footsteps of his close friend, Terrell Suggs, who signed a contract extension last offseason when it appeared he might be in danger of getting released.

But finding a financial compromise for both sides hasn’t been easy and there has been little expressed optimism that a deal will get done by the time the Ravens have to get their salary cap situation in order before the March 10 start of free agency and the new league year. Things can change real fast if both sides are motivated to get a deal done, and the Ravens certainly need that to happen.

If Ngata is released, there would be a long line of suitors with plenty of salary cap space at their disposal. How long do you think it would take Chuck Pagano and the Indianapolis Colts to pick up the phone and start recruiting Ngata if he was available?

The bottom line is that Ngata would be a huge loss for the Ravens. It sounds like a pretty obvious conclusion but it has surprised me how many Ravens’ fans I’ve heard from who are ready for the team to move on from Ngata, no questions asked. They’d prefer the salary cap space for the Ravens to go after a top-notch receiver or sign a standout defensive back.

Look, the Ravens have to draw the line somewhere on Ngata. They have other needs, after all. Ngata is 31 years old and he’s dealt with knee and shoulder issues over the past three years. He also was nowhere close to a dominant player during the 2012 and 2013 seasons, though injuries had a lot to do with that. He bounced back in a big way last year, but his regular-season ending, four-game suspension for Adderall spurred some questions and put the Ravens in a tough spot as they tried to secure a postseason berth.

Signing him to a lucrative contract extension definitely contains some risks, but if accomplished at a decent price, it certainly beats the alternatives.

As promising as second-round pick Timmy Jernigan’s rookie season was, it would be a huge leap to think that he’ll be able to step into Ngata’s spot and produce in a similar manner. Jernigan missed four games last season with a knee injury, so he’ll need to prove that he can make it through a full season. He’ll also need to prove that he can handle a lot of snaps, and the conditioning concerns that followed him from his time at Florida State are unfounded.

The Ravens already moved on from starting defensive end Chris Canty. They are almost certain to lose defensive end/outside linebacker Pernell McPhee in free agency, and fellow pending unrestricted free agent Lawrence Guy, a member of last year’s effective defensive line rotation, may also leave. Those losses, coupled by Ngata’s departure, would turn a major 2014 strength into a significant 2015 question mark.

With Ngata at the center of the defense, the Ravens have been a top-five group against the run in seven of his nine seasons. Ngata has been surrounded by great defensive players, but as the anchor in the middle who regularly plugs holes and absorbs double teams, he’s as big of a reason as any for the dominance against opposing ground games.

Ngata makes those around him better, Ask Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams, who had a superb 2014 season, how much he benefits from playing alongside Ngata and not constantly facing double teams. Ask Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and McPhee about what it means for them to have Ngata pushing the pocket and occupying blockers on the inside.

With Ngata suspended last season, the Ravens went 3-1 and remained stingy against the run. Never mind that not one of those games came against a team that finished in the top 13 in the NFL in total offense, the Ravens proved that they could win with Ngata.

The Ravens almost always find a way, regardless of who they lose, to fill the void. If Ngata’s extension demands are too prohibitive, they’d have no choice but to move on, and nobody could blame them in that case.

But make no mistake, losing Ngata would represent a setback for a defense that suddenly would have other concerns beyond fixing its secondary.

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