Unfortunately, time moves on, and I have to wonder if the young players that are taking over the team are capable of providing the sort of impact that their predecessors did. While I've speculated a fair bit about whether the more recent Ravens' drafts have been as successful as their past drafts, I wouldn't deny that the Ravens have still managed to turn up the occasional gem. The problem seems to be that a number of the team's better picks from recent years aren't showing the longevity we saw with some of the team's past stars, and it's leading to some potentially horrific financial consequences.
With that in mind, I wanted to look at some of the more expensive players that the Ravens currently have under contract. For the moment, I'm going to leave out Joe Flacco, though we'll discuss him at some point. I'll also ignore Haloti Ngata's obscene contract, that pays him $16 million/year in 2014 and 2015, since I think the damage has already been done in that case. It seems fairly likely that Ngata will play out his remaining time, and then move on, which will eliminate that issue. Instead, I wanted to just look at some of the situations which could have a longer term negative impact on the team.
This clearly starts with Ray Rice situation. Whether it ever really made sense to give a running back a contract that paid him an average of $7 million/year was always highly debatable, but that question is now a bit irrelevant. As things currently stand, the Ravens are looking at $9.5 million in dead money for 2015 after cutting Rice While this is only $1.75 million more than Rice would have cost if he was still on the team, the real problem is that they're now getting nothing in return for the money they are spending. There's no way around this one. This situation is going to cause the team a headache, but it's really just a relatively insignificant starting point in examining their financial problems.
Then you have the problem that stems from Dennis Pitta's recent injury. I've always been a big fan of Pitta, though I've often had issues with the team's utilization of him. Prior to the 2014 season, the team signed him to a 5 year, $32 million dollar contract, with $11 million in his signing bonus (but $16 million in total guarantees). They did this despite the fact that he was already 29 years old, and coming off a fairly serious hip injury. The team threw caution to the wind, and now might be facing some unfortunate and painful consequences. Now, after suffering a seemingly similar hip injury to the one he had in 2013, you have to wonder if he will ever be able to play again.
If this is the end of the line for Pitta, the team could be looking at another $12.8 million in dead money for 2015, depending on when/if he is cut or chooses to retire. That would bring the combined Rice/Pitta dead money pool up to $22.3 million, though it's possible that not every single cent of Pitta's dead money would have to hit the team all at once. It's entirely possible that Pitta and the team might not immediately choose to call it quits on his career, and give him an additional year to recover. This could also give them additional time to spread out some of this dead money over an additional year or two.
Let's assume that Pitta can return next season. If Pitta can play, what are the chances that he returns as the same caliber of player that the team thought they were paying for when they gave him the new contract? The more likely scenario, in my opinion, is that he returns in 2015 only to be put on IR, to delay the acceleration of his dead money hit by one year. In this case, the Ravens would be effectively be paying $15.2 million in 2015 dead money for Ray Rice and Dennis Pitta, while delaying an additional $6.6 million in dead money from Pitta's contract, which would hit the team in 2016. This would be somewhat similar to how the team held onto an injured Peter Boulware in 2004 and 2005, despite never starting him. Unfortunately, I think this sort of optimism is sort of like seeing the silver lining in slowly bleeding to death, versus a quick exsanguination.
Okay, let's consider some of the broader implications of this situation, before we go any further. The salary cap in 2014 is about $133 million. We have no idea what the cap will be in 2015 (though some people have speculated that it could rise to $140 million), but the team is already projected to be at about $136.2 million in 2015, for the 41 players that they will still have under contract. If Pitta retired, that would push the team's cap number to around $142.8 million, though in this scenario the team would only have 40 players under contract. Now, even if the team filled out the 13 remaining slots on their roster with undrafted rookies making the league minimum ($435K in 2015), that would still add $5.655 million in cap expenses, pushing their total to $148.4 million. It seems pretty obvious that filling those 13 roster spots will actually cost more than that amount, but we're just playing pretend. Now, the Ravens are also currently carrying about $6.3 million in 2014 cap space that they could carry over to 2015 (if they don't spend it before then). That would reduce the 2015 projection of their cap expenses to about $142.1 million (again, this assumes that Pitta retires, and the unrealistic assumption that 13 roster spots could be filled with players working for the league minimum). It's not a great situation.
It appears to me that finding additional 2015 cap space would be a priority, but this could mean cutting quality players, simply to cover the expenses of players who are no longer on the team. It would be like owning two cars, and selling the one that runs, to pay off the debt on the one you totaled. As far as I can tell, there is really only a small handful of players who the team could cut to free up significant financial room.
|Player||2015 Cap Hit||Savings If Cut|
While some of these players would obviously be less painful sacrifices than others, the easy players to cut don't tend to save the team much money. So, let's say that we wanted to reduce the team's imaginary 2015 cap number of $142.1 million by about $8-10 million, to give the team some breathing space. Well, unloading Ngata would go a long way towards reaching that goal, but would also probably put a sizable dent in the defensive line. Ngata also only has one year remaining on his contract, so maybe it's for the best to let him play out the year. Unfortunately, if the team doesn't cut (or massively restructure, which could be difficult) Ngata, they would have to cut perhaps 3-5 other players from this list to reach our goal of gaining $8-10 million in additional cap space (I'm sort of assuming that Yanda would be viewed as untouchable).
In the imaginary scenario I presented earlier, the team was already trying to fill 13 roster spots with players working for the league minimum, and now we could be adding 3-5 more roster spots that would need to be filled rather cheaply. Pretty much anyway you slice it, you can probably expect the team to unload some proven quality, in the hopes that an unknown can do the same job for significantly less money. Of course, if this was easy to do, the team wouldn't have been paying these players in the first place.
You can probably rule out the Ravens making any sort of substantial moves in the 2015 free agency period. They simply won't have enough money for big ticket acquisitions. Any new contracts that pay more than a laughably small $1 million/year are going to be difficult to squeeze in under the cap. It could also be quite unlikely that the team will be able to resign any of their own free agents such as Justin Tucker, Torrey Smith, Pernell McPhee, or Owen Daniels, as it's doubtful the team would be able to afford them either. So, accounting for those likely losses becomes a factor in all of this as well. Even giving the franchise tag to the team's kicker, Justin Tucker, could cost somewhere in the ballpark of $2.51 million, which could prove to be difficult to afford. So, does it appear that the team is likely to get better, or worse, in 2015?
This brings me to the one contract that the Ravens did recently renegotiate, which really confuses the hell out of me.
Let's take a look at the Ravens' star cornerback Lardarius Webb. For a mere 3rd round pick in 2009, Webb was clearly a steal. Despite that, it's hard to be a fan of the way his contract was restructured. When the team adjusted his contract prior to the 2014 season, converting $4 million of his $7.5 million base pay to future guaranteed money, it became really unclear what they were trying to accomplish.
Let's take a look at his original contract, and then his restructured contract. Please make some allowances for the fact that the details of these numbers can vary a bit, depending on where you look up the data, so there could be some relatively minor errors in this.
|Year||Base Pay||Signing Bonus||Other Bonuses||Cap Hit||Dead Money|
|Year||Base Pay||Signing Bonus||Other Bonuses||Cap Hit||Dead Money|
Regardless of how well Webb has played in the past, his recent contract restructuring makes little sense to me. While it saves the team $3 million in 2014 cap space, this money hasn't been used to sign anybody else, and seems to have been of no immediate benefit. At the same time, it increases Webb's future cap hits in the years from 2015 onward. Most importantly, it increases the dead money hits that the team would face, if they chose to release him at some point in the future.
Now, as I've said already, I really like Lardarius Webb. Despite that, he is still a fairly small cornerback (approximately 182#). We can't overlook the fact that he does have a rather extensive injury history (quite possibly connected to being on the smaller side), including 2 torn ACLs, and is now dealing with some back issues. He will also be turning 29 this coming October, so even if he wasn't already fairly beaten up, it's quite likely that his best years might already be behind him. So, why would they restructure his contract in such a way that makes the team even more committed to his long term role with the team? As things currently stand, he is slated to have the 6th highest cornerback cap hit for 2015, which is silly for a guy that might have a 50/50 shot of being injured at the time.
The reason I find all of this interesting, is that all of these burdens seem to fall into 2015, which is the last year before Joe Flacco's contract explodes into utter lunacy. As things currently stand, his cap hit for 2016 is slated to leap to $28.55 million dollars. I plan to pursue the subject of Flacco's contract later, in a separate post. Regardless, even if many of the team's current questionable/idiotic contracts will be off the books by 2016, the eventual room that is created by their removal is quickly going to get absorbed by Flacco.
While there are many strange and magical ways to manipulate the salary cap that I haven't gotten into here, I have to wonder about the team's immediate future. If the Ravens had a surfeit of young and emerging stars, of the caliber we saw in the past with players like Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Jamal Lewis, Todd Heap, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata, maybe they could still push past the financial bump in the road they are quickly approaching. I have my doubts that this is going to be possible.