It isn't an exaggeration to say the Ravens played with one hand behind their backs in 2015.
Almost 15 percent of their $143.2 million salary cap allotment went to players who had been released or traded – players who, one way or another, were gone from the team.
Baltimore ranked in the top five in the league with almost $21 million in "dead money," most of it resulting from the decisions to part ways with Ray Rice, Haloti Ngata and Jacoby Jones.
Those weren't bad football decisions, but the cap ramifications were staggering. Of the five teams with the highest dead-money totals in 2015, only one, the Kansas City Chiefs, made the playoffs. The New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Bucs and Ravens didn't.
Dead money alone didn't bring the Ravens down, of course, but it was among the factors that contributed to their first losing season since 2007.
They usually run up at least $10 million a year in dead money, which sounds like a lot but is a typical amount in this era of constant roster shuffling and players coming and going. Most teams have to deal with it to some degree every year.
But it became a bigger issue for the Ravens in 2015 as the Rice saga continued to reverberate. Talk about frustrating. They simply couldn't use a major chunk of cap space to bolster the roster, patch holes, etc. Needless to say, it could have made a difference.
The Ravens certainly don't want to reprise the situation in 2016. Rice is finally off the books and they've had enough with dead money. But it's a persistent issue and still in their calculations on several tough decisions.
For instance, there's been a lot of conversation about their possibly making a change at left tackle, either going with Kelechi Osemele, who is a free agent, or taking a tackle with their first-round draft pick. But if they were to part ways with their incumbent at the position, Eugene Monroe, who has struggled to stay healthy, it would ring up a $6.6 million dead-money charge.
That's a prohibitive amount, especially since Monroe is a 28-year-old veteran who plays well when healthy. I'm guessing the specter of another big dead-money hit will encourage the Ravens to stick with Monroe and just hope he can stay healthier in 2016.
They're also facing a decision on tight end Dennis Pitta, who has barely played because of hip injuries since signing a major contract extension in 2014. The Ravens have restocked his position with so much young talent that his roster spot seemingly is in jeopardy, but cutting him would produce $6.6 million in dead money.
Cutting him is the last thing the Ravens want to do, for reasons beyond just dead-money implications. Pitta is an organizational favorite, popular in the locker room, and has rehabbed tirelessly in hopes of getting back on the field and rewarding the franchise for investing in him.
At this point, though, it's hard to see how the Ravens can avoid incurring that dead-money hit.
Of course, teams have fine-print tricks they can employ when battling the cap. If the Ravens were to cut Pitta after June 1, they could spread the dead-money hit over two years – $2.2 million in 2016 and $4.4 million in 2017 – while clearing $5 million in cap space. That space would come in handy and it wouldn't surprise me to see such a scenario unfold.
The ultimate goal is to have enough cap space to pay the guys who are actually going to be on the field. The possibilities are almost endless when navigating the cap, a complex economic puzzle with many moving, interlocking parts.
The Ravens, as always, are going to be tight against the cap in 2016, especially if they're unable to negotiate Joe Flacco's mega-hit down. (I'm guessing they will.) Either way, they're always looking to free up space, a maneuver usually best achieved by cutting players with big salaries. But those cuts tend to trigger dead-money charges, so much in some cases (Terrell Suggs, Lardarius Webb) that cutting the player is virtually impossible.
In the end, there's bound to be dead money on the books again in 2016. Just not as much, the Ravens hope – not nearly as much.