The Baltimore Ravens have maintained an expensive tradition of rewarding their top players with contracts that approach or exceed the gold standard as the highest in the NFL.
Besides quarterback Joe Flacco's blockbuster $120.6 million contract signed in March that included $51 million guaranteed, the Ravens have reached deep into owner Steve Bisciotti's coffers to sign several other standout players to lucrative deals.
That includes nose tackle Haloti Ngata's $61 million contract, with $35 million guaranteed; rush linebacker Terrell Suggs' $62.5 million contract, with $37.1 million guaranteed; and running back Ray Rice's $35 million deal, with $22 million guaranteed.
"The Ravens aren't cheap," said Joel Corry, a former NFL agent who writes about the business of football for National Football Post. "They're very generous with their best players. It's a star system, not unlike many NFL teams."
Now the Ravens must deal with their stars' high salary cap figures after a disappointing season in which the team failed to make the playoffs for the first time under coach John Harbaugh. A combined $37.15 million among Ngata ($16 million), Suggs ($12.4 million) and Rice ($8.75 million) counts against the salary cap for 2014. Ngata's and Rice's contracts are regarded as untouchable for salary cap reasons, and their place on next season's roster is safe, according to sources.
Heading into the offseason, the Ravens face several complicated personnel and financial decisions. None looms larger than how to handle Suggs, who faded during the second half of the season and whose contract offers potential salary cap flexibility.
Entering the final year of his contract and due a $7.8 million base salary, Suggs could restructure his deal by adding years to space out his salary cap hit, better allowing the Ravens to retain their free agents and, perhaps, sign ones from other teams.
Restructure potential: The Ravens are expected to approach Suggs about adjusting his deal and will try to reach a compromise that would lower his salary cap figure, according to sources.
"That's a hard one with Suggs," Corry said. "How much do you pay him, and how do you agree on his value? You can't pay a guy for what he's done in the past. If you want to extend him, only one pass rusher has signed a deal that averaged over $10 million when they were over 30 years old, and that's [Chicago Bears defensive end] Julius Peppers.
"Suggs may have to accept that his best days are behind him, but most players don't acknowledge that. They have to play this one just right or go find a guy to be his potential replacement if they can't work it out. The Ravens already have [strong-side linebacker] Elvis Dumervil on the roster at under his market value, with a $1 million salary for next year, but they would need another pass rusher to replace Suggs if they can't find common ground."
Suggs made the Pro Bowl this season, finishing with 10 sacks one year after limping through much of the 2012 season with a partially torn Achilles tendon. However, the 31-year-old appeared to wear down in the second half of the season, recording only 20 tackles and one sack over the final eight games.
"It's a tricky thing with a player like Suggs that's getting up there in years," said Louis Riddick, an ESPN analyst and former Philadelphia Eagles director of pro personnel. "The Ravens could feel like he has enough left in the tank to extend him until they have a better alternative. When he's dialed in and feeling good, Suggs is still one of the best combination power-finesse pass rushers. He can change the course of a game for you. I know he's still a formidable pass rusher, but the way he ended the season would make me leery."
Starting cornerback Lardarius Webb ($10.5 million salary cap figure, $7.5 million base salary) is another candidate for a restructured deal. Webb, though, won't be approached, a source said, unless absolutely necessary.
'Dead money:' Ngata and Rice, meanwhile, are unlikely to have their deals altered or be released from the team outright. Cutting either would severely damage the Ravens' flexibility under the salary cap because it would create "dead money," which results from the release of a player before his contract is completed. The remaining bonus money or guaranteed salary owed to the player remains on the team's books, even after he's no longer on the roster.
Under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, a player's annual salary cap figure is determined by a relatively simple equation: Once the signing bonus is divided evenly over the length of the contract, the salary cap figure is determined by adding the base salary for each individual year to the annual bonus figure.
Ngata's $16 million salary cap figure, for example, is derived from adding his scheduled $8.5 million base salary for next season to an additional $7.5 million, which represents the prorated portion of his $35 million in guaranteed money ($25 million signing bonus, $10 million option bonus) divided over the length of his five-year contract.
When a player is released outright, his salary is taken off the books, unless it's guaranteed. His remaining prorated bonuses and guaranteed salaries, which had been spread out over the deal, are immediately counted against the cap for that year as dead money.
Ravens vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty, the team's chief negotiator and salary cap guru, always tries to avoid having dead money on the books.
Rice rushed for 660 yards (3.1 per carry), his career worst since being named a starter, during a sluggish season in which he lacked explosiveness and dealt with lingering hip and quadriceps injuries. If the Ravens cut Rice, they would be saddled with $14.25 million of dead money for 2014.
"They have to hope that Ray Rice's competitive character and who they think he is will get him to respond and do what he needs to do to get back to the football player he was in the past," Riddick said. "When you're saddled with guys like that, whose performance has dropped and are being paid so much, it puts you in a bind contractually.
"It has bad ramifications for everything you do. They have to remove the emotion from it, to the best of their ability, and hope that they can get the old Ray Rice back with the kind of money they're paying him."
Rice, 26, repeatedly has vowed to come back in optimal shape. Barring a resurgent 2014, he would be in real danger of being cut after next season, the third year of his five-year contract.
Rice received a $15 million bonus when he signed the $35 million deal in 2012, the highest bonus for a running back in NFL history.
"Rice's deal is so front-loaded that it makes it tough to do anything with him right now," Corry said. "He's not really vulnerable until next year."It would be even worse financially for the Ravens to release Ngata, who after being shifted from defensive tackle to nose tackle had a respectable 52-tackle season. He finished with 1.5 sacks, down from three straight seasons of at least five. Ngata has a base salary of $8.5 million for 2014 and 2015 and $7.5 million in proration counting against the cap from his bonuses each of the next two years.
If the Ravens cut Ngata, they would have $15 million in dead money for this year and save just $1 million against the cap while also losing one of the league's best interior defensive linemen.
The Ravens could split the dead money evenly between 2014 and 2015 if they designated Ngata as a post-June 1 cut, but that's not expected to happen.
"Because Ngata's cap number and dead money are basically the same, it's a wash," Corry said. "I don't know if you could still call him the best defensive tackle in football anymore, but they can't really touch him."
Keeping free agents: With 46 players under contract for next season, the Ravens are roughly $12 million under a projected salary cap limit of $126.3 million for 2014. Their cap figure remains fluid because they have yet to retain restricted free agents and exclusive-rights free agents, cut players under contract or sign any of their own free agents.
Ideally, the Ravens would like to have even more salary cap space to try to retain key free agents such as left tackle Eugene Monroe, tight end Dennis Pitta, middle linebacker Daryl Smith and defensive tackle Arthur Jones.
Those four are expected to be the Ravens' primary negotiating priorities, though the franchise is aware Jones might be too expensive to keep after a strong season in which he led the defensive line with 53 tackles and four sacks. Wide receiver-kick returner Jacoby Jones is another free agent who might cost too much to bring back. The Ravens haven't ruled out trying to keep Jacoby Jones if he's willing to take a bit less to stay, according to a source.
"I can't see Arthur Jones coming back to Baltimore," Corry said. "A good, young defensive lineman in his prime would probably be out of their range since they have so many other things to do. I think Jacoby is a luxury, not a necessity."
The Ravens are expected to make a major push to try to lock up Monroe, who was acquired in a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange for fourth- and fifth-round draft picks. Right tackle Michael Oher isn't expected to return now that his $13.499 million rookie contract has expired.
"They can't go into the season without a very good pass protector like Eugene," Riddick said. "He more than holds his own and solidifies the left tackle spot. They can find another right tackle and let Oher go, but they have to get a deal done with Eugene. I would be shocked if they don't."
Pitta returned from hip surgery to catch 20 passes for 169 yards and one touchdown in the team's final four games. The Ravens had planned to involve Pitta heavily in the offense in the hopes that he could fill the void created by their trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers in March after a contract dispute.
If the Ravens are unable to work out a long-term deal with Pitta, they can keep him by designating him as their franchise player for a one-year, $6.709 million tender.
When the waiver period begins after the Super Bowl, the Ravens could part ways with a few veterans. Cutting fullback Vonta Leach ($1.75 million salary), weak-side linebacker Jameel McClain ($3.2 million salary) and punter Sam Koch ($2.2 million salary) would create a combined salary cap savings of $6.56 million. Defensive end Chris Canty ($3.166 million salary cap figure) is expected to be back.
Despite six players -- Flacco ($14.8 million), guard Marshal Yanda ($8.45 million), Ngata, Suggs, Webb and Rice -- counting for a combined $70.9 million against the salary cap, the Ravens are in much better salary cap shape than last year, when they overhauled their roster after winning Super Bowl XLVII.
Along with trading Boldin, they didn't bring back free-agent inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, free safety Ed Reed, outside linebacker Paul Kruger and cornerback Cary Williams, and they cut strong safety Bernard Pollard. The Ravens replaced them with Smith, rookie free safety Matt Elam, Dumervil, cornerback Jimmy Smith and strong safety James Ihedigbo, respectively.
"The Ravens were smart that they didn't go all-in and bring everybody back," Corry said. "They're not like the Steelers, where they're scrambling every year to get under the cap and restructure deals and mortgaging the future. The Ravens made a conscious decision to reload with new players like Elvis Dumervil and Daryl Smith.
"You can't argue with their success because they've been doing it for a long time and have been able to stay competitive through a long window. The Ravens are capable and smart. I expect them to figure out a way to keep the guys they need to keep."
Top 10 Ravens salary cap figures for 2014
Player, Base Salary, Cap Figure
Haloti Ngata $8.5M $16M
Joe Flacco $6M $14.8M
Terrell Suggs $7.8M $12.4M
Lardarius Webb $7.5M $10.5M
Ray Rice $4M $8.75M
Marshal Yanda $5.5M $8.45M
Jameel McClain $3.2M $4.4M
Elvis Dumervil $1M $3.375M
Chris Canty $2M $3.166M
Sam Koch $2.2M $2.8M