Three Difficult Salary Cap Decisions for the Ravens
Teams have already begun releasing players to clear salary cap room before free agency opens in less than a month. The Ravens haven't made any moves yet, but are expected to do so.
Or maybe not.
Three starters that media has talked about as potential salary cap casualties are wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, cornerback Brandon Carr and right tackle Austin Howard. Respectively, they would bring about cap savings of $5 million, $4 million and $3 million, for a total of $12 million.
However, there are good reasons for all three to stay aboard as well, which The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec and others have talked about this week.
Zrebiec began his news, notes and opinions piece yesterday debating the difficult decision with Carr.
Jimmy Smith's Achilles tear left Baltimore's defense weakened down the key playoff push and, again, reaffirmed that a team can never have enough cornerbacks.
"It's why moving on from Carr would be a mistake," Zrebiec wrote.
"Yes, it would open up $4 million in salary cap space, which the cash-strapped Ravens could repurpose to help the offense. However, it would also further thin a secondary that will have several question marks heading into the season."
Smith will be coming off Achilles surgery. Tavon Young will be coming off a torn ACL, as will Jaylen Hill. Maurice Canady has played in 12 games in two seasons. If there's no Carr, it leaves Marlon Humphrey as the only starter without a question mark.
The Ravens could draft another cornerback, but have bigger needs on offense than spending another high pick at the position. The free-agent market at cornerback is thin and, as always, expensive.
Zrebiec feels Carr has gotten too much fan blame during Baltimore's late-season defensive struggles. "By and large, he had a solid first season in Baltimore," Zrebiec wrote.
Regarding Howard, it's another position where the Ravens don't have a lot of depth. Last year, starting guard James Hurst was the backup right and left tackle, and he could depart via free agency.
"As with Carr, I'd have a hard time moving on from Howard until you have a serviceable replacement on the roster, and I don't think the Ravens do as of now," Zrebiec wrote. "The Ravens don't have enough space to be in the starting tackle free-agent market, so if you drop Howard, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to draft an offensive tackle early."
And what about Maclin? Wide receiver is another position where the Ravens' depth is lacking with Mike Wallace and Michael Campanaro set to become free agents.
The free-agent market at wideout is thin, which could drive up the price on those available. There's only one widely-regarded first-round wideout, and he (Alabama's Calvin Ridley) could be gone by the time the Ravens are on the clock.
Thus, pundits feel Baltimore may be best off keeping Maclin despite a $7.5 million cap hit, per Spotrac, and hope he can stay healthier and bounce back after two years of diminished production.
"At wideout, the Ravens are essentially down to Jeremy Maclin, who might need to take a pay cut to stick around," ESPN's Bill Barnwell wrote. "Maclin might profile best as a slot receiver at this point of his career."
Remember, Barnwell estimated that Baltimore could free up close to $9 million in additional salary cap space by restructuring the contracts of safety Tony Jefferson and defensive tackle Brandon Williams.
"The Ravens have only $11.7 million in cap space to work with," Barnwell wrote. "They can decline the options for Brandon Carr and Austin Howard, but with Jimmy Smith injured at cornerback and two regulars from the 2017 offensive line hitting free agency, the Ravens need all the help they can get at those two spots."
More Thoughts on What to Do at Wide Receiver
With the Ravens' strong desire to upgrade their wide receiver corps, but seemingly few options to do so, what's the best plan?
"All the talk about finding a true No. 1 receiver leaves out the fact that it isn't clear whether the Ravens have a good No. 2 or No. 3 receiver," Zrebiec wrote.
"There might not be a legitimate No. 1 available, so the focus needs to be on building as strong and diverse of a receiving corps as possible. Ultimately, they have to develop their own No. 1 because those guys rarely hit the open market anymore."
It remains to be seen whether Jacksonville's Allen Robinson and/or the Los Angeles Rams' Sammy Watkins will also get the franchise tag, but reports indicate they will. Thus, the hunt for a true No. 1 will likely continue into next year (barring a trade).
As far as this year is concerned, the Ravens won't rely only on the draft to bolster their wide receiver corps. Baltimore must add players, and Zrebiec believes it could come in the form of a familiar face.
"If the Ravens can't get one of the other few top free-agent receivers, and I'm skeptical they will, re-signing Mike Wallace, taking a flier on a receiver coming off an injury-filled year — Jordan Matthews, John Brown, Terrelle Pryor and Donte Moncriefapply — and then drafting one or two receivers on Day 2 is probably their best play," Zrebiec wrote.
Wallace has a connection with quarterback Joe Flacco and his production improved down the stretch last year when the offense clicked as a whole. He finished with 53 catches for 748 yards and four touchdowns after posting more than 1,000 receiving yards the year before.
It remains to be seen what a 31-year-old receiver would command on the open market. Part of it will likely depend on whether Wallace is the best (or one of the best) free agents available.
Outside of Matthews, Brown, Pryor and Moncreif, here's another free-agent wide receiver to consider.
NFL.com writer Marc Sessler says the Ravens and Marquise Lee, who posted 56 catches for 702 yards and three touchdowns last year in Jacksonville, are a good fit.
"The Ravens dialed up the Dolphins last offseason about a potential trade for Jarvis Landry. Baltimore could pursue the franchised wideout in a trade, but it would be easier to sign the chain-moving Lee," Sessler wrote.
"With Mike Wallace on the market, Breshad Perriman doubling as a full-blown enigma and Jeremy Maclin unlikely to return, Baltimore's eternal need at the receiver position rages on. Lee would serve as a solid start."
History Shows Ravens Will Pursue Released Wideout
Perhaps the best strategy is to sign a wide receiver who is released by another team.
It certainly wouldn't be a new approach in Baltimore.
"The Ravens' 15-year history says the team wouldn't have pursued Landry or any of the wide receivers whose contracts are expiring," ESPN wrote. "The last unrestricted free-agent wide receiver whom Baltimore signed to a multiyear deal was Frank Sanders in 2003."
Among the Ravens' best wide receiver signings have been players released/traded by other teams: Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith Sr. and Wallace.
It remains to be seen who actually will be released, but two possibilities are Dallas' Dez Bryant and Green Bay's Jordy Nelson. Nelson is due $9.25 million next year and Bryant is in line for a team-high $12.5 million.
"Nelson fits the Ravens' profile more than any other potential cut," ESPN wrote. "He's a 30-something receiver who has become too expensive for the only team he has ever played for."
Nelson certainly has the production on his resume, though playing with Aaron Rodgers clearly helps. Since 2011, he has the 10th-most receiving yards in the NFL and he put up 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns two years ago.
Hampered by injuries last season, and with A-Rod out of the lineup, Nelson dropped to 53 catches for 482 yards and six touchdowns.
Bryant averaged more than 1,300 yards and put up double-digit touchdowns for three years (2012-2014). He brings a Smith-like physicality and attitude to the field.
However, Bryant's production has also dipped. Since he signed a five-year, $70 million deal in 2015, he hasn't topped 850 receiving yards. He struggled with drops last year and his 12.1 yards per catch were a career-low.
"The Ravens' track record is to sign experienced wide receivers who are let go by other teams or trade for them," ESPN wrote. "Basically, Baltimore probably will make its move when other teams are ready to make theirs."