Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti is having an internal struggle.
It's the same struggle he has every year when marquee players like wide receiver Torrey Smith finish their contracts. Smith has produced so well that other NFL teams could potentially throw piles of money at the speedster to lure him to their franchises – especially teams with plenty of salary cap space.
Meanwhile, Baltimore is known for its pragmatic, thoughtful and level-headed business when working out player contracts. They evaluate pending free agents' production, the roster as a whole, and then set a number they feel like they can spend. General Manager Ozzie Newsome sticks to his carefully calculated offers so much that not even the man who signs his checks can make him budge.
"He sets his number, I live with that number," Bisciotti said Tuesday at the annual season-review press conference. "I've never successfully talked him into changing that number."
And therein lies Bisciotti's inner-battle.
He wants to see Smith catching passes from quarterback Joe Flacco next season, but he also cares for Smith so much that he wants to see him earn as much money as possible.
"I've always said that's the worst part of the job – the nature of this beast living with a salary cap," Bisciotti said. "Let's be frank: Do you hope that Torrey doesn't break the bank out on the open market so we can get him for our number? That's a hard thing to say. I care about the kid. I want him to maximize his earnings, and at the same time, the more successful he is at doing that, the less success we have in retaining him."
Depending on which receivers make it to the market on March 10, Smith could be the crown jewel of receivers, particularly if Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas are franchised. If Smith is the best available, it wouldn't be surprising to see a team in need of a playmaker make him an offer the Ravens can't match.
Baltimore reportedly has the eighth-least amount of cap space of all 32 NFL teams. Then there are squads like the Cleveland Browns, for example, that have a reported $41 million (depending on the final cap limit) and they could use a receiver after Josh Gordon was suspended for the year.
"I don't like to stand up here and say I'm rooting against the guy [in getting a big payday], but we've got to find a number," Bisciotti said. "And some of the numbers that are thrown out there, quite frankly, we can't match. We don't have that kind of space."
Bisciotti gave the example of the deal then-Steelers wideout Mike Wallace got two years ago. The Miami Dolphins gave him a reported five-year, $60 million deal. Last season, Wallace was the NFL's highest-paid receiver at $15 million and he scored fewer touchdowns than Smith. The Dolphins are now deciding whether they can maintain his scheduled $12.1 million next season, or trade or release him.
"I don't think anyone thinks that was a good deal," Bisciotti said. "There's always a team that has lots of money that wants to bring in playmakers and those guys are going to get those deals. We're just going to have to take it on the chin and move on."
Newsome added that the Ravens have a history of retaining productive players, but they also have a history of allowing players to maximize their earnings on the open market. Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and Joe Flacco are some of the iconic Ravens the team has retained. Ed Reed, Art Jones, Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger are players that got big paydays elsewhere.
Ultimately, it's up to Smith to determine which group he falls in. The Ravens await the 26-year-old veteran's decision on remaining a Raven or testing free-agent waters.
"That lies with Torrey," Newsome said. "We'll find out between now and the opening of the league year."
That's the harsh reality of the football business. And that's why Bisciotti would love to live without a salary cap – so he can pay his players and maximize their earning at the same time. But the salary cap does exist, and he feels the process his brain trust uses to navigate through it is prudent.
"There's a lot of teams out there that don't spend to the cap and we do," Bisciotti said. "I'm always envious of those teams right about this time of the year, and then they're envious of me when we're in the playoffs."