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Another cap-free year was on the table during the labor negotiations between the players and owners, but in the end, the new collective bargaining agreement included a cap on team salaries of some $120 million in 2011, forcing the Ravens to gaze at their roster entirely differently.
No longer can they just go with every player they like, like the proverbial kid in a candy store. They have to select the combination of players they believe gives them the most bang for their buck.
Unlike a year ago, they have to consider value in every decision they make.
They aren't cutting Mason, one of the toughest and most dedicated Ravens ever, because they're tired of him. The decision is about as personal as a computer-generated stock call. It's strictly business, part of a financial algorithm the cap forces all teams to calculate. They're cutting Mason because they think they can approximate his statistical production for less money. Then they can use the extra money to bolster their roster elsewhere.
The whole process is a complex jigsaw puzzle, a nonstop juggle of talents and salaries mandated by the cap.
How are they going to equate Mason's production for fewer dollars? Given how decisively they acted Monday, it's clear they have a plan. Let's see what they have in mind. Monday's cuts were the first steps of many in this process, the subtractions that precede the additions. You can't judge their decisions until they put the puzzle together in the coming days.
Their plan to replace Mason's numbers could be as simple as bringing Mason back at a lower salary, or they could go in another direction – a move that was close to being necessary anyway, given Mason's age – and get younger and faster. They have some interesting young receivers on board.
They also obviously believe they can replicate the performances of Gregg, McGahee and Heap for less money.
It's hard to quibble with the first two calls. Gregg's replacement, Terrence Cody, is already here and looking far more fit than a year ago. McGahee's absence leaves them without a proven backup for Ray Rice, but McGahee was going to earn far too much for a guy who doesn't start. In Cap Land, you pay guys to play, not watch.
Their call on Heap is the most dubious, in my mind. It means they're going with second-year guys Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta at tight end unless they pursue a free agent, which wouldn't make sense. Dickson, the presumed starter, has loads of potential but just 11 career receptions – 456 fewer than Heap.
The Ravens might still try to bring Heap back at a lower salary, but at 31, he's liable to have his share of suitors. It could be tough to get him.
The idea of cutting Heap and Mason, huge fan favorites and the team's top two all-time receivers, has staggered Baltimore's football community. The resumption of football is tantamount to the sun coming out after four months of clouds, a supremely happy occasion for all. But watching the team possibly break with iconic players is sobering.
It wasn't personal, though. An all-time free agent bonanza is at hand in the NFL, with possibly as many as 500 players available, and the Ravens couldn't peruse the shopping aisles unless they freed up some room under the cap. They had to give themselves a chance to pluck key additions out of such a large pool of options. To not do so would have been foolish. So they acted. With purpose, as winning teams often do. It's tough to watch, but necessary.
John Eisenberg *covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.*