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Eisenberg: Crazy To Think Ray Rice At Risk

Posted Feb 16, 2013

Tough decisions lie ahead, but tinkering at running back isn't one of them.

The Ravens’ salary cap math is a bit scary at this point, no doubt about it.

Ten veterans are already on the books to earn at least $4 million apiece in 2013 and a combined $69 million, which is well over half of the expected cap threshold of roughly $121 million. And that list of high earners doesn’t include Joe Flacco, who is going to cash in big one way or another, and also the team’s other restricted and unrestricted free agents, which includes Ed Reed.

Whew. Some tough decisions lie ahead.

No one wants any players to depart after a Super Bowl-winning season, but it is the Ravens’ job to continue to turn the roster over on the run, juggle age and youth, high earners and low earners. That’s how you compete year after year.

The way things work under the cap, a highly-paid veteran becomes vulnerable when his team believes it can replicate his production for less salary. It’s the NFL’s version of “Moneyball,” and fans in Baltimore know all about it, as it led the Ravens to gamble (and win) on parting ways with popular veterans Derrick Mason, Todd Heap and Jarret Johnson in recent years.

Now that the salary cap season is underway again, I’m hearing a lot of chatter about which players might be next to go. I would counsel against jumping to any quick conclusions, as the Ravens could renegotiate contracts, perform a few other tricks and keep more players around than you think. But meanwhile, you can be sure they’re taking a hard look at the roster to see where they might be able replicate a veteran’s play for less money.

I’ve heard and seen some conclude that running back Ray Rice could be vulnerable, given how well Bernard Pierce performed down the stretch in 2012.

Quite simply, it’s a ridiculous idea, maybe the dumbest of the year.

Oh, I understand the thinking. Rice is reportedly due to make $5.75 million in salary and bonuses in 2013 , but Pierce, exceeding the team’s expectations, was more effective carrying the ball in a handful of key games down the stretch. With Pierce due to make $5 million less than Rice in 2013, maybe that’s a place where the Ravens could cut a corner and survive.

But there are just so many things wrong with that thinking.

For starters, the way the cap works, the Ravens would immediately have to swallow the majority of Rice’s prorated signing bonus if they cut him, and since he just signed his big contract less than a year ago, that would be a huge figure. In other words, cutting him wouldn’t save a dime. In fact, it would probably cost the team more against the cap.

Teams cut older players near the end of their deals, not cornerstone younger guys who just signed.

But beyond any financial considerations, the idea that Pierce is ready to replace Rice is truly insulting to Rice. Yes, Pierce broke tackles and ran with a gliding abandon reminiscent of Adrian Peterson. Yes, he generated some nice yardage totals and exhibited game-breaking potential. But he also struggled with injuries throughout the season, so there are questions about his durability.

Meanwhile, Rice, as usual, never missed a snap and piled up enough rushing and receiving yardage to earn another Pro Bowl selection, his third in five years with the Ravens. He literally carried the ball all season for the offense. Remember “Hey, Diddle Diddle” on fourth and 29?

Pierce’s emergence does mean the Ravens would have a viable alternative if Rice were to suffer an injury. And long range, there’s certainly the potential for evolution at the position down the line.

But no one stays in better shape than Rice, who is at his peak, a team leader as well as a top player, one of the faces of the franchise.

The way I see it, the fact that the Ravens had a pair of highly productive running backs was crucial to their success in 2012, and it shapes up as one of their major assets going forward, one of the best things they have going for them. Why in the world would they tinker there?

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