Eisenberg: No Blank Check for a Free Agency Shopping Spree

General Manager Eric Decosta watches an NFL football game on the sidelines at M&T Bank Stadium.

That great annual shopping bazaar known as NFL free agency begins March 18, some five-and-a-half weeks from now. It'll be an exciting and interesting time, as always, and anticipation is running higher than usual in Baltimore this year.

Not only are the Ravens coming off their best-ever regular season, with much to anticipate, but they've got more spending power. They've been near the bottom of the league in available salary cap space for a while, but their situation is improving.

Inevitably, that has prompted speculation about them possibly bolstering their already-strong team with a shopping cart full of top-tier free agents – a lovely thought certain to help fans endure February's gray days.

So … I apologize for writing this, but it's probably wise to be careful with what you're expecting.

Don't misunderstand. I'm not saying a shopping spree won't happen. I'm sure the Ravens are entertaining more options, and I'm sure they'll add useful players.

But I wouldn't let my expectations just go free and soar to the stars. I'd keep them realistic.

Yes, the Ravens are in better shape thanks to the cap going up, Joe Flacco's contract coming off the books and several other factors. But a lot of other teams still have more dollars to spend.

The Ravens are ranked No. 21 in available cap space according to Over the Cap and No. 22 according to Spotrac. They'll likely create more space by cutting ties with veterans in the coming weeks, but of course, other teams will do the same.

My point is the Ravens, while indisputably better off, aren't suddenly just swimming in cash and able to walk the shopping aisles pointing at free agents and saying, "I'll take that receiver … and that pass rusher … and that linebacker …"

As always, they're going to be careful shoppers, look for value.

Let's say they want to add a receiver. My guess is it wouldn't be Amari Cooper, who is 27, healthy and due a huge payday. A.J. Green is just as dynamic when healthy, but he's five years older and has played in just nine games over the past two years due to injuries, which should make him more affordable.

The Ravens obviously would investigate Green's health and ability to contribute going forward before making such a move. There's no telling how that investigation would go. I'm just speculating, using the example to illustrate HOW they might approach free agency this year.

But if they're careful along those lines, they probably could land a couple of names that raise eyebrows.

Another reason they can't go wild is they need to reserve significant cap space for retaining their own players, as opposed to adding new ones. If they elect to keep linebacker Matthew Judon off the market by re-signing or putting the franchise tag on him, that's a costly move. (And my guess is they'll do exactly that, franchise Judon.)

There's also the ongoing process of signing their current players to extensions to keep them from becoming free agents, a maneuver they've already used to lock up cornerback Marcus Peters, fullback Patrick Ricard, wide receiver Willie Snead IV and cornerback Tavon Young, among others.

Pro Bowl offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley is at the front of that line now with his contract due to expire after the 2020 season, and needless to say, signing him is a top priority that'll cost plenty and make Stanley among the team's highest-paid players.

Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey is a year behind Stanley, and then it's on to Lamar Jackson and, for sure, an entirely new cap scenario. I'm getting too far down the line, but my point is the Ravens have high-quality players they need to keep, a demand that tends to gobble up whatever cap space exists.

It's not as if the Ravens weren't already active in free agency. Just a year ago, they signed safety Earl Thomas III to a four-year, $55 million deal. They had less cap room than now but still added a cornerstone piece.

It could easily happen again now that they have more room. But don't think they have an unlimited checkbook.

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