The NFL salary cap forces teams to make difficult choices, especially if they have quality players who warrant big contracts.
The Ravens certainly know this. They're paying the going rate for so many good players that they lose several young ones to free agency every year, simply because they can't fit the price tag under their cap.
The situation is especially precarious this year because they reportedly owe more than $20 million in "dead money" cap charges to Ray Rice and other players no longer on the team. It's forcing them to make harder-than-usual decisions, like trading Haloti Ngata for Jimmy Smith and Justin Forsett. That's basically what they did.
When they dealt Ngata to the Lions on March 10, they reportedly cleared $8.5 million in cap space, quite a chunk. Without that flexibility, they would have struggled to make their two biggest moves of the offseason, re-signing Forsett on March 12, and in a far bigger transaction finalized earlier this week, re-signing Smith to a reported four-year, $48 million extension that includes $21 million guaranteed.
Maybe it's a slight oversimplification to say they traded Ngata for Forsett and Smith because, as always, their cap puzzle is comprised of dozens of interlocking moving parts. Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb also helped create room by agreeing to restructure their deals.
The Ravens wanted to restructure/extend Ngata, who was going to be their highest-paid player in 2015, but when they couldn't reach an agreement, away he went, clearing the way for Forsett and Smith to stay.
On paper, giving up Ngata for the other two seems like a questionable call. Ngata, 31, is a six-time Pro Bowl selection, a rock in the interior defense, while Forsett, 29, was a journeyman until his breakout season in 2014, and Smith, 26, though indisputably talented, has started a full season of games only once.
But I understand why the Ravens made the move.
Ngata is a terrific player, but when he was suspended for the last four games of the 2014 regular season, the Ravens fared well with a pair of young players, Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Williams, manning the middle of their defense. Basically, the Ravens discovered they could survive without Ngata. Or at least, they think so.
But that's not the case with Smith and Forsett. The Ravens don't have an established, load-carrying running back other than Forsett, who rushed for 1,266 yards in 2014. And their secondary was never anywhere close to the same after Smith suffered a foot injury on October 26 and was lost for the rest of the season. There simply was no replacing Smith, who had emerged as one of the NFL's better young cornerbacks.
Having seen what life was like without Smith – not pretty – the Ravens were absolutely right to offer him enough big, long-term dollars to keep him, even if it meant losing Ngata in the process. The alternative was to let Smith test free agency after the 2015 season, which was tantamount to saying goodbye. He could have earned more than what the Ravens offered, which was why I was somewhat surprised he signed. But as he said, he appreciated the loyalty the Ravens have shown in drafting him and sticking with him through some tough times.
The Ravens made the same kind of big financial commitment to Ngata in 2011, when he was 27. They were never sorry. Owner Steve Bisciotti has said the organization's goal is to invest in "ascending" players, as opposed to those who have already hit their peak, and Ngata gave them a lot of good years.
But now it could be argued that Ngata's best football might be behind him. In switching their top-dollar defensive investment to Smith, the Ravens are gambling that Smith's best football lies ahead – a gamble worth taking, I say, given a) how well Smith played last season before he was injured, and b) how important pass defenders have become in the pass-happy NFL.
From a theoretical standpoint, a team is always better off paying for future performance rather than past performance. The Ravens are counting on Forsett picking up where he left off last year, and they're certainly counting on Smith to resume playing such tight coverage that opposing quarterbacks don't even bother throwing his way.
There's no commodity more valuable in today's NFL, as the Ravens learned the hard way in 2014. That's part of the reason why Smith is here and Ngata now plays in Detroit.