The Ravens have until March 3 to work out a contract extension with tight end Dennis Pitta, or else they will have to use the franchise tag to keep him from hitting the open market.
But even with the franchise tag, a possibility exists that the Ravens may not be able to keep the sure-handed pass catcher from ultimately becoming a free agent.
Uncertainty with the franchise tag complicates the Ravens' decision with Pitta because he may challenge his designation as a tight end, saying he should be classified as a receiver since he often lines up in the slot. The difference in designations is significant for Pitta and the Ravens, as the one-year franchise tag salary for tight ends is expected to be $6.8 million, compared to $11.6 million for wide receivers.
The franchise tag is typically a binding deal that prevents free agents from signing anywhere else, but ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio detailed a scenario where the Ravens could try to franchise Pitta and still end up losing him.
"Most people assume that if you tag him as a tight end and there's a third party ruling that he's really a receiver, you just get to say, 'Alright fine, we'll give you the money under the one-year franchise tender as a receiver. We'll pay the extra $4.5 million,'" Florio said during an interview at the NFL Scouting Combine.
"If and when that happens, I think the argument will be, 'Sorry, you screwed up. You had a chance. You tagged me at the wrong level.' And the third party who resolves it could say he's a free agent now."
Avoiding that scenario is important for the Ravens, which is why they are working to lock up Pitta to a long-term deal. If the Ravens are unable to sign Pitta before the deadline to apply the franchise tag, Head Coach John Harbaugh indicated that they could simply allow him to hit the open market.
"I think every scenario is possible here," Harbaugh said at the combine. "The franchise tag is very vague right now, so anything could happen."
Harbaugh said that he is still optimistic about re-signing Pitta, and the Ravens have been in negotiations with the tight end.
"Right now we just concentrate on trying to get a deal done," General Manager Ozzie Newsome said. "We know that there is a deadline on March 3, and we'll have to make a determination if we don't have a deal done at that point."