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Eisenberg: Keeping Their Best Young Players Is Ravens' Surest Path

First: OLB Matthew Judon; Second: TE Mark Andrews; Third: T Orlando Brown Jr.; Last: DE Yannick Ngakoue
First: OLB Matthew Judon; Second: TE Mark Andrews; Third: T Orlando Brown Jr.; Last: DE Yannick Ngakoue

Shortly before Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta fielded questions from the media Monday, the news broke that the team had decided not to re-sign long snapper Morgan Cox.

Although DeCosta spoke to the media for nearly an hour and generated headlines with several comments, the decision on Cox said as much about the Ravens' current situation as any words.

It wasn't a complete shock in one sense. Like every team, the Ravens have to purge quality players from their roster every year because of the salary cap.

But Cox? A career-long Raven, he was a consummate pro and really good at his job, the team's only first-team All-Pro in 2020. He also was a leader, a locker room tone-setter. And he wasn't that expensive as these things go.

The decision to replace him with Nick Moore, who is younger and plenty talented but also less expensive, makes it clear how serious the Ravens are about opening up every possible nickel of cap space as they head into the 2021 offseason.

Some may think it's because they want to make a big splash and acquire a marquee wide receiver – a move many would love to see after the Ravens finished last in the league in passing yards per game in 2020.

Maybe that'll happen. But I think the Ravens are more concerned about having enough cap room to keep their best, young players in uniform.

That's never been an easy task for them. They've been as good as any team at drafting and developing talent, but the cap makes it impossible for them to pay everyone. They keep as many guys as they can, but they're forced to prioritize, and inevitably, some good ones get away.

Several examples were on display during Sunday's NFC Championship Game. Ryan Jensen was the Tampa Bay Bucs' center. Rick Wagner was the Green Bay Packers' right tackle. Za'Darius Smith was the Packers' top pass rusher. The Ravens drafted and developed them all and certainly could use them now.

Alas, the salaries they commanded in free agency exceeded what the Ravens could pay, so now they play elsewhere.

I'm sure the Ravens are happy for Jensen that he'll snap the ball to Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, but I'm also sure it's a frustrating sight.

"We want to keep our good young players. We have these players. We draft them, we know them; we like them, they fit us," DeCosta said Monday. "We want our fans to reap the enjoyment of these players over time, if we can, based on the parameters of the salary cap."

But he added: "You can't sign everybody. That's a challenge."

I'm guessing that challenge is especially acute in 2021. The salary cap might drop for the first time due to declining league revenues related to the pandemic. The Ravens are in better shape than some teams, DeCosta said Monday, but they also have quite a list of young players they want to retain. And those players will be costly.

Outside linebacker Matthew Judon is due to hit free agency in March after playing on the franchise tag in 2020. Tight end Mark Andrews and tackle Orlando Brown Jr. are entering the last year of their rookie deals. Lamar Jackson has two years remaining and DeCosta said Monday the goal is to lock him up to a long-term deal. The Ravens traded multiple draft picks for young pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who is now a pending free agent.

That list (others are on it) is why the Ravens are looking to save every possible nickel.

When they signed cornerback Marlon Humphrey and tackle Ronnie Stanley to long-term deals in 2020, they turned those former first-round picks into franchise cornerstones rather than good ones who got away. That's the goal. But it's a tough squeeze this year. If the Ravens are able to sign Jackson, it'll be a mega-deal.

"He certainly deserves a contract. He has played phenomenal football. Our intention is to keep him in Baltimore for many, many years," DeCosta said.

Patience, negotiating skills, and of course, sufficient cap room are required to get such deals done. How the Ravens clear that room will be interesting.

But have no doubt, they will. Keeping their best young players in uniform is their surest path to a winning future.

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