Back in June, after the Ravens signed Jeremy Maclin and rumors were swirling about them possibly adding another receiver such as Anquan Boldin or Eric Decker, Owner Steve Bisciotti made this comment during a conference call with PSL holders:
"If I have one bullet left in that gun, I better save it for an offensive lineman."
He was speaking metaphorically, of course. His "gun" actually was the NFL salary cap, and his "bullet" was a player signing that, in theory, the Ravens could afford to make.
It was, and still is, no secret that they're relatively close to their cap limit, with only so much room to maneuver, as the 2017 season approaches.
When they signed right offensive tackle Austin Howard late last week, it wasn't a whopper of a deal, but nor was it a pittance – to be expected considering Howard is a starting-caliber player at an important position. Bottom line, continuing with Bisciotti's metaphor, it qualified as a "bullet" the Ravens fired.
I liked the move. The Ravens badly need a solid offensive line if they're going to bolster their running game and achieve better run-pass balance in 2017, and Howard, who has made 72 NFL starts, appears to be an upgrade over James Hurst, who has started at right tackle during offseason practices.
Hurst has worked hard to get bigger and improve, and even though he is now the top backup for both tackles and also possibly for both guards, he's still going to get significant snaps. Injuries happen.
Nonetheless, Howard gives the Ravens what they wanted, a massive anchor on the right side of the line. His signing, which eliminated one of the team's major question marks, was a positive step.
But … well … what now?
With even less room to maneuver under the cap, are the Ravens still able to fire "bullets," i.e., add players?
They're almost surely going to need to, especially after experiencing a run of injuries in training camp, which rocked the front office. When I crossed paths with one of the team's decision-makers in a hallway at the Under Armour Performance Center Monday and asked how he was doing, this was his response: "Just trying to get through these injuries."
That told me the front office is, indeed, concerned. The decision-maker followed up his terse reply with this statement: "We'll get through it." That almost surely means firing more bullets.
At which positions? The front office doesn't tip its hand, but here are my guesses:
- Running back. Terrance West is set to start and Buck Allen is having a strong training camp, but I get the feeling the Ravens would love to upset the tentative game plan by signing a veteran back with a track record, especially one with speed. They're hard to find this late, but other teams' cap concerns do produce surprising cuts.
- Slot cornerback. No surprise here. The Ravens have lost Tavon Young and Maurice Canady to injuries and fully admit they're considering a host of in-house alternatives as Plan C.
- Center. After John Urschel's retirement, Ryan Jensen and Matt Skura are competing to start, with Jensen seemingly the favorite. But the idea of adding a veteran has been discussed for months. Jensen's preseason play will be carefully scrutinized.
If you parse Bisciotti's comment carefully, you'll note a key distinction. He didn't say the Ravens only had one bullet left; he said "if" they only had one left. Again, he was speaking metaphorically, primarily to make the point that the front office prioritized stabilizing the O-line over bolstering the wide receiving corps. Howard's signing proved that was true.
My guess is the Ravens will find a way to fire at least one more bullet before the regular season begins. They might have to restructure a veteran's contract to free up cap space, which they prefer not to do, but it's happened before. They also could cut someone.
Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome always says that if he identifies a player the team really needs, he'll find a way to sign the player.
My advice is stay tuned.