A Head Start to Managing the Salary Cap
Submitted by Bill Bonnington
The Ravens have been blessed of late by both the rookie contract and play of Lamar Jackson. The rookie deal allowed the Ravens to agree to some aggressive contracts for Earl Thomas, Calais Campbell and now Kevin Zeitler and Alejandro Villanueva. Well, the honeymoon is almost over!
The Lamar Jackson era is just beginning but his rookie contract is soon to be history. Lamar has only one inexpensive year left followed by the recently exercised option year at a relatively cheap $23,106,000. I guess everything is relative but compared to the close to $40 million/year he is sure to receive on any extension, he will be a bargain still in 2022. In preparation for the changing dynamics of the Ravens cap structure coupled with the challenging reality of today’s Covid-impacted salary cap, the Ravens have begun taking the necessary steps to manage a long term salary cap topped by an elite quarterback being paid like one.
In discussing the 2021 and 2022 drafts Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta indicated he wanted twenty picks between the two drafts. Twenty picks added to a playoff team’s roster that is ready for a Super Bowl run? What gives? Quite frankly, it’s all about the Benjamin’s! As in salary cap room! DeCosta realizes that sustaining a playoff team’s run requires an influx of young, cheap talent to complement highly compensated stars such as Ronnie Stanley, Marlon Humphrey and soon to be Lamar Jackson and Mark Andrews.
With this strategy in mind, let’s take a look at the Ravens defensive backfield and the 2021 draft. While much has been made about the important additions of Rashad Bateman and Odafe Oweh in Round 1, I was struck by the decision to draft CB Brandon Stephens in Round 3 and CB Shaun Wade in Round 5. Wink Martindale’s secondary is as good as any in football and it is stocked with established stars like Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith. The safeties are young and fairly priced in Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott. Nickel cornerback, Tavon Young, is an oft-injured budding star that the Ravens committed big money to just a few years back.
So why waste valuable draft picks on a position group that is so loaded with talent?
The answer lies in the ability to manage the salary cap in preparation of the much deserved large contract of a star quarterback.
Brandon Stephens is a running back turned cornerback who is just beginning to realize his potential. He ran a 4.43 40-yard dash and notched a 38-inch vertical at his Pro Day. He is big at 6-0, 213 pounds and can play outside corner, inside in the slot or possibly be moved to safety. When I heard his name called, I just shook my head in disbelief. I hadn’t even heard of this guy! When the Ravens doubled down and took CB Shaun Wade in the 5th round, I was equally shocked. Wade was a solid slot corner in 2019 that was moved to the outside in 2020 and struggled. He ran a 4.43 40-yard dash and notched a 37.5 inch vertical at his Pro Day. He is viewed by most as an excellent slot corner with the potential to move to safety but his stock had taken a big hit in 2020. Even with such solid numbers and potential, I was perplexed why the Ravens would draft these two guys when so many other players at positions of need were available.
The Ravens realize how important it is get younger and cheaper at critical positions. By drafting Stephens and Wade in 2021, they allow a year for them to develop before the contracts of Marcus Peters and Tavon Young become untenable. Peters will count $12.0 million against the cap in 2022 per RSR’s Brian McFarland and Young will count $9.183 per the same source. DeShon Elliott will be an unrestricted free agent and, if he plays to his potential, his services will not come cheaply. Jimmy Smith will also be a free agent and may retire or move on.
The Ravens recognize the need to use the draft to bolster the roster with the solid, athletic talent needed to replace expensive veterans with cheaper, controllable players. The 2021 draft accomplished this goal by providing solid developmental defensive backs. Pay attention to the 2022 NFL draft as both Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams’ contracts expire and that defensive line class is loaded with talent!
With ten draft picks, I’d expect the Ravens to use the same strategy to bolster the defensive line with young, less expensive studs!