Haloti Ngata played some fine football for the Ravens in 2014. His late-season suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy probably cost the defensive tackle another trip to the Pro Bowl, but he played at that level.
No, his statistics weren't eye-popping, but his is one of those cases where you shouldn't use numbers to quantify his impact. Use your eyes. If you noticed, the pile seldom moved when opponents tried to run the ball. There was a reason. Ngata was an immovable force in many games on a rushing defense ranked among the league's best.
Interesting, the Ravens also discovered in 2014 that they could fare pretty well without Ngata. In the past two years, they've drafted and developed a pair of starting-caliber defensive interior players, Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan. When Ngata was suspended in December, the Ravens held up nicely, winning three of four games with Williams and Jernigan manning the middle.
With that in mind and Ngata, 31, set to earn $16 million against the salary cap in 2015 as he plays out the final year of his big contract, his future in Baltimore is at a crossroads. When a team knows it can get younger and cheaper at your position, it's time to have a conversation. The Ravens have shown no hesitancy in the past to cut ties with veterans in such circumstances. It's nothing personal. That's how a smart team rolls in the salary cap era.
But while the Ravens know they probably can get by without Ngata, they'll be a better team in 2015 – significantly better, in my opinion – if he's still anchoring their defensive front, supported by Williams and Jernigan.
One of the Ravens' most encouraging qualities going forward is they look strong up front, in the trenches, That's where games are decided, and Ngata is a key part of that equation on the defensive side. That should trump all concerns as the Ravens try to talk Ngata into agreeing to a contract extension that pushes some of his salary cap obligation into the future, giving the team more room to maneuver in the short term.
The Ravens tried to strike such a deal with Ngata a year ago, but he had two years left on his contract, so the timing wasn't right. Ngata said no.
At the same time, they tried to strike a deal with Terrell Suggs, Ngata's good friend, who had one year left on his heavily backloaded deal. That situation worked out. In exchange for helping out the Ravens and freeing up cap space, Suggs received a new round of up-front money and a few more years of expected salary. Everyone went home happy.
Some observers thought it was a mistake to re-up with Suggs because he was 31 at the time, but he had a terrific 2014 and looks like he can keep going for awhile. Now Ngata is the same age, at the same point contractually, and the Ravens are hoping for the same result.
The idea of cutting ties with him gets attention because of the Ravens' history and the fact that the team could reportedly save $8.5 million against the cap by making such a move. But it would still have to swallow a sizable chunk, hardly desirable when the team already is dealing with a "dead money" obligation because of the Ray Rice scandal.
A Suggs-like extension is the obvious choice as the right path for the Ravens to take.
I'm guessing Ngata is more willing to entertain the idea this time around, provided he actually wants to stay. Let's face it, you never know how guys really feel. But Baltimore is the only team Ngata has played for, and he's a locker room leader, a popular and central figure and relentless commercial pitchman. The team certainly had his back when he made a big mistake and was suspended last year. I think all that matters.
I'm sure a market for his services would arise if he suddenly became available, but I'm thinking he's more valuable here, steeped in the team's traditions, than anywhere else.
Any deal would have to work for both sides, of course, and you never know what's going to happen with these delicate, unpredictable situations, but I'm encouraged about the possibility of a resolution that satisfies both sides.