The importance of getting a long-term deal done with tackle Eugene Monroe has become greater with the Ravens' decision not to put their franchise tag on him.
They still have a week to sign him before he hits free agency, and well, let's just say that is definitely their best option as they seek to build a more effective offensive line in 2014.
By not tagging Monroe, they run the risk of losing him if he hits the open market. Several other teams reportedly are very interested.
If he departs, the Ravens would either have to a) sign another free agent to start at left tackle, b) find one in the draft, c) try to bring back Michael Oher and put him on the left side, or d) hope Kelechi Osemele can play there.
Monroe is preferable to those options.
Another free agent would be similarly expensive and not necessarily better. The best starting-caliber tackles are liable to be off the draft board by the time the Ravens pick. Oher was better on the right side. Osemele is coming off back surgery.
True, Monroe has yet to earn a Pro Bowl invitation, but he is just 26 and solid. Pro Football Focus rated him the 12th best tackle in the league in 2013, and most analysts say he is the top pending free agent tackle.
I understand why the Ravens balked at paying him top dollar via the tag, which would have kept him here on a one-year deal worth $11.65 million. It would have given the Ravens more time to negotiate, but that's almost half of their reported available cap space.
The best scenario all along has been to lock him up long-term. It's going to cost a lot, possibly as much as $8 million a year and maybe more if the market soars. But Monroe is here, wants to stay, and would solidify an area that caused huge problems in 2013.
The Ravens now have a week to walk the tightrope between not losing their heads and finding a way to lock up a player they badly need. I would say the stakes are pretty high.
The NFL doesn't "set" its salary cap. The number isn't manipulated. It is produced by a complex equation, established in collective bargaining, involving revenues, player benefits and other economic factors – hard numbers, all. The limit changes every year, and it is what it is, not what the league wants.
Having said that, I don't think the league is unhappy to see its cap limit rising sharply this year, more than eight percent, to around $133 million, reflecting the obvious reality that business is good these days.
I also think I know what the league wants its teams to do with the extra cash. It would rather teams use the windfall to retain their own players rather than pluck someone else's homegrown stars off the open market.
Bottom line, keep their own guys rather than go get someone else's.
Oh, sure, there's always going to be a thriving open market with guys jumping from team to team. But in general, I think the league would like fans to see more familiar faces in uniform, more roster continuity from year to year – certainly more than what the Ravens have experienced since winning the Super Bowl 13 months ago.
No one from the league office is whispering this to me. I just think it's clear that while parity is good for business, it's not so great when winning teams get ripped apart in the process, due largely to the cap.
Yes, the league's competitive model is based on every team having a chance every year thanks to the draft, unbalanced schedule and salary cap leveling the playing field. Helping winning teams stay together seemingly tugs in the opposite direction of all that.
But fans in Baltimore had barely stopped celebrating a Super Bowl win last year when the Ravens started disassembling, parting ways with numerous key players, some by choice but others strictly because they didn't fit under the cap. That's no way for a franchise to grow its fan base. I'm thinking the league saw that unfold, didn't like it and hopes a less restrictive cap might keep it from happening again.
The league can't tell teams how to spend their money, of course. If you want to bring in a bunch of free agents, you can. No one forced the Ravens to sign the big deals that squeezed their cap situations and led them to have to make changes.
But going forward, if a team can use the extra money to keep familiar players in place, that strengthens the bond between the team and its fans, and that's good for business.
As free agency approaches, there's plenty of speculation about what the Ravens might do with their new-found flexibility. Sign free agents? Retain their own? While it's enticing to think about them adding safety Jairus Byrd, a top free agent, I think philosophically the league would like to see them focus on retaining Eugene Monroe, Daryl Smith and Art Jones.
Jerry Seinfeld once said that today's pro athletes jump from team to team so often that fans are reduced to "cheering for laundry," i.e., whoever wears your team's uniform. It was a funny but devastatingly true line in many ways, and I'm thinking the NFL wants a little less of it.