Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta is challenged to answer questions about the team’s general strategy for the offseason, because the NFL has yet to implement an official salary cap for 2021.
The window to place a franchise tag on an impending free agent expired March 9 at 4 p.m. The Ravens opted not to exercise that option, which allowed essentially all of their top edge rushers from last season to test the open market.
It likely ends Matt Judon’s tenure in Baltimore.
Yannick Ngakoue, who was acquired from the Vikings at the trade deadline, became a 10-game rental.
Tyus Bowser, a second-round pick (47th overall) of the 2017 NFL Draft, will also be able to test the free-agent market for the first time of his young career after enjoying a breakout season in 2020 when he was second on the team with three interceptions.
The Ravens could get high compensatory picks in return when those players sign with other teams.
“We look at all of that. It’s such a difficult thing because we don’t know what the salary cap is going to actually be yet; we still haven’t been told. So, there are a lot of moving parts and these things are very fluid,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said. “There are a lot of different ways we can go, and we still have time to make those decisions. So, we’ve definitely talked about a lot of different scenarios with our roster, free agency, players under contract, impending free agents [and] players available on other teams.
“We look at all that stuff; we’ve been doing that really since November. When the time comes, we’ll have a gameplan and we’ll be ready to attack.”
The expectation is for this year’s salary cap to be around $185 million, down from $198.2 million in 2020. The NFL needed to make adjustments because of the challenges of COVID-19.
Free agency begins on March 17 even though teams officially do not know how much money they can spend. The uncertainty also creates a challenge for the players because the market might preclude teams from handing out huge contracts.
However, the situation did not preclude the Cowboys from reaching a four-year, $160 million contract with quarterback Dak Prescott — a deal that could impact the Ravens future negotiations with Lamar Jackson (more on that later).
Despite the uncertainty in the marketplace, DeCosta said the team has been able to formulate a plan based on the expectations of potential money to spend with the conservative ballpark being in the low $180 million range.
“We have a general idea of what the cap will probably be – at least some kind of parameters,” DeCosta said. “We know it’s not going to be any less than $180 million. So, using that number, we try to be conservative. We look at deals. We look at how this is going to affect things. We look at recent deals that have taken place [and] players that have recently signed to try to get a sense of what the market is going to be.
“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.”
The Ravens are not traditionally big players in free agency, so they are not as impacted as the current situation as other teams. Baltimore ranked 27th in the NFL with free-agency spending ($69.97 million) over the past four years, according to the OvertheCap.com. However, the Ravens made the playoffs three times over that stretch.
So from a competitive standpoint, the Ravens have an advantage with the lower salary cap. They’ve done an effective job over their history finding ways to win without breaking the bank.
However, that does not mean the team will not be willing to spend this offseason. The Ravens could use a play-making wide receiver, depth on the offensive line, and an outside linebacker to balance the roster.
DeCosta added: “What [effect is] this reduced cap number going to have on contracts in general? Is there a percent decrease that we expect across the board? How is this going to affect guys that get cut later in March, early April? How is that going to affect their value? 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.”
That’s a scenario that is subject to change with the potential contract extension of Jackson, who will likely command a deal north of $40 million per year. DeCosta has already spoken with Jackson this offseason, but they have not formally engaged in discussions for a new deal.
“We’re confident and committed to trying to get a long-term deal done,” DeCosta said.
The Ravens also want to reach a new deal with Mark Andrews, who will likely garner a contract that will make him one of the highest-paid tight ends in the league at around $15 million annually.
Baltimore is also dealing with a fluid situation with offensive lineman Orlando Brown Jr., who wants to move from right to left tackle full-time. That’s not going to happen in Baltimore because Ronnie Stanley just signed a long-term deal.
“We’re blessed to have [Brown] on the team,” DeCosta said. “He’s under contract and he understands that. We’ll do what’s best for Orlando and we’ll do what’s best for the Ravens.”
The 2021 season will be another critical year for the direction of the Ravens. Even though the NFL is stalling some progress, DeCosta is enjoying the challenge.
“It’s kind of fun. It’s kind of fun with some changes and some new nuances involved,” he said. “So, we’ll pivot as we have to pivot. We’ll be aggressive when we can, but we’ll also be conservative in some ways, too.”