The Ravens have as much great, young talent as any NFL team. Seven of the 13 players they sent to the 2019 Pro Bowl were still playing on the contracts they signed as rookies.
Those seven were quarterback Lamar Jackson, the reigning league MVP; left tackle Ronnie Stanley and cornerback Marlon Humphrey, both All-Pro selections in 2019; tight end Mark Andrews, who has caught 98 passes in two pro seasons; outside linebacker Matthew Judon, the team's top pass rusher; Orlando Brown Jr., a mountainous tackle; and Patrick Ricard, a rare two-way player.
The feat shouldn't be underestimated. It's rare for a team to have seven Pro Bowlers in a season, period, let alone seven still in the relatively early stages of their careers.
Success of that magnitude at drafting and developing players is likely to lead to success on the field, and the Ravens are no exception. Their young players helped them go 14-2 in 2019, with another winning season widely forecast for 2020.
But such success is costly in the NFL. It's what everyone wants, but there's a price attached. A high price.
As great, young players mature into veterans, they reach the end of those deals they signed as rookies, when they didn't have much leverage. Now, with the possibility of free agency looming, their earning potential soars.
It's hard enough for a team to retain one player in such a position, as the Ravens are re-learning from their ongoing negotiations with Judon, the first of the above six to see his rookie deal expire.
Unable to agree on a long-term contract yet this offseason, the team offered him a one-year franchise-tag tender, which he signed last week. His salary cap hit rose from $2.08 million last season to $16.8 million this year – currently the highest on the team, according to Spotrac.
Say no more about the price of uncovering young players who help you field a winner.
Ricard also was due to see his rookie contract expire after last season, but he signed a two-year extension in December. His cap hit rose from less than $1 million in 2019 to $4.6 million in 2020.
The Ravens can afford it right now, mostly because Jackson is 23 and on his rookie deal, not a veteran earning $25 million a year. But as more of their other young stars reach the pay-me point in the coming years, the Ravens will confront a forbidding gauntlet of salary increases, none bigger than Jackson's.
It'll be a major challenge for the front office to try to retain everyone. I've read/heard it suggested there simply won't be enough room under the salary cap, and hey, it's possible. Even if the cap spikes significantly in the coming years, and that's no certainty, we're talking about mega-payroll commitments.
The time could come when the Ravens regretfully have to decide which of their young stars they can live without. (Obviously not Jackson.)
But I wouldn't just assume they'll have to do that. In the past two years, the franchise has deftly negotiated a transition at general manager, moving on from a legend, Ozzie Newsome, and giving Eric DeCosta control of the roster, draft and cap. To say DeCosta is off to a good start is an understatement. The Sporting News just named him NFL Executive of the Year.
DeCosta has adopted an aggressive and creative approach to managing the cap. The Ravens have sought to sign their ascending players to contract extensions long before it was necessary (see: Ricard), hopefully limiting the kind of deadline decision-making that invariably comes with a higher price tag.
Utilizing that and other best practices of the cap, the Ravens have had the room to sign veteran stars Earl Thomas III and Calais Campbell to sizable deals, bolstering the defense.
Those sizable deals will start going to homegrown stars soon enough. The Ravens are going to want to keep their guys. Continuity is a hallmark of the franchise.
The cap will be an impediment, but with the job of retaining players taking place over a span of years, who knows what the Ravens might be able to pull off?