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SHAFFER: In bizarre twist, NFL rules may force Ravens to spend heavily in offseason

The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
The Baltimore Ravens must spend some serious cash in the offseason to reach an NFL spending minimum. Re-signing pending free agent Matt Judon, seen above in a file photo, may help the Ravens in solving that issue.
  • NFL teams must spend at least 89% of the league's salary cap over a four-year span.
  • That rule may compel the Baltimore Ravens to go on an offseason spending spree.
  • The Ravens are $45 million short of a possible spending minimum.

Their entire starting offense could be back.

Three Pro Bowl defensive backs will return, along with a handful of other defensive starters.

On special teams, the “Wolfpack” is still going strong.

For a team still a month away from the start of free agency, the Baltimore Ravens already have one of the NFL’s most impressive rosters.

But the defining irony of this offseason might be that league rules will compel the Ravens to spend anyway — and not lightly, either.

Under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, teams are required to spend at least 89% of the league’s salary cap in cash over a four-year period. The cap for 2020, which will be finalized by next month, is projected to increase from $188.2 million to between $196.8 million and $201.2 million. With a $200 million cap next season, the last year of the CBA’s four-year period, the minimum spending requirement would be $651.8 million.

To get there, the Ravens still have checks to sign. According to NFL salary cap website Over The Cap, over the previous three years, the team spent $477.2 million in cash — the base salaries and bonuses owed to a player in a given season. (They often differ from salary cap hits, which account for the proration of signing bonuses over the duration of a contract.) With another $127.9 million allocated for the 50 players currently under contract for 2020, the Ravens’ four-year total is $605.1 million. That’s over $45 million short of a possible spending minimum.

The possible retirement of offensive guard Marshal Yanda, above, could exacerbate the Baltimore Ravens' salary-cap issues.

And that deficit might grow. Guard Marshal Yanda, who’s considering retirement, is owed $7 million in base salary next season. So is safety Tony Jefferson, who’s said he doesn’t expect to be retained this offseason. Cornerback Brandon Carr’s contract has a team option for 2020, which if not exercised would clear another $6 million ($4.5 million base salary and $1.5 million roster bonus). Three of the seven Ravens with the biggest cash figures could be off the books.

There are worse problems to have. As coach John Harbaugh said at his season-ending news conference last month, “We have great cap resources that we haven’t had in the past. So we have a chance to build our roster in a way that we haven’t been able to, maybe, in the last large number of years.”

The question is how the Ravens will choose to spend their cash. Here are a few routes.

1. Re-sign players under contract to extensions: With several young, talented players eligible for extensions, and general manager Eric DeCosta committed to keeping them from reaching free agency, this would be the quickest and most sensible way to spend some cash.

Even if there weren’t a need to invest heavily this offseason, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and cornerback Marlon Humphrey would be candidates for lucrative extensions. Stanley graded out as the game’s top pass-blocking offensive tackle this season, according to Pro Football Focus, and was named first-team All-Pro. Humphrey, a natural outside cornerback, was a second-team All-Pro pick despite playing most of the season in the slot.

Stanley, who will earn about $12.9 million in 2020, the fifth and final year of his rookie contract, could use Philadelphia Eagles tackle Lane Johnson’s recent NFL-record deal as a benchmark. The three-time Pro Bowl selection’s four-year contract extension is worth $72 million, with $54.6 million reportedly guaranteed.

Humphrey is entering the fourth year of a rookie contract that, if the fifth-year option is exercised this spring, would extend into 2021. Because he’s already played for three years, he’s also eligible to sign a longer-term extension this offseason.

There’s flexibility with how teams divvy up big-money signing bonuses. Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters, for instance, finished with the team’s second-biggest cash figure last season, but only after the $8 million signing bonus included as part of his contract extension was added to his $5.4 million base salary. Johnson’s contract in Philadelphia, meanwhile, is structured differently, with the signing bonus paid out in cash over the next four years.

2. Re-sign pending free agent Matthew Judon: If the Ravens want to bring back their Pro Bowl outside linebacker, they’ll have to pay handsomely. Former Ravens pass rusher Za’Darius Smith signed a four-year, $66 million contract with the Green Bay Packers last offseason that included a $20 million signing bonus — and Judon’s 2019 stats were better than Smith’s in 2018. If he leaves in free agency, the Ravens would likely receive a compensatory third-round pick for the 2021 draft.

They could also designate Judon with the franchise or transition tag this offseason. A franchise tag for a linebacker is projected to be worth about $16 million, while a franchise tag for a defensive end, which Judon might argue is the position he plays, is about $19 million.

Transition tags, which grant the original team the opportunity to match any offer the player receives in free agency, are projected to be worth about $14 million and $16 million for linebackers and defensive ends, respectively.

If Judon is tagged and traded for draft picks or other players, he’d be off the Ravens’ books for 2020. But DeCosta could sweeten a potential deal by agreeing to subsidize part of his one-year deal, as the Houston Texans did for new Seattle Seahawks star pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney last year.

3. Sign free agents: While the Ravens do not have significant salary cap space this offseason — about $27.8 million, according to Over the Cap, 22nd most leaguewide — they do have the means to address certain roster holes.

The defense’s front seven needs help. The wide receiver room could be reshuffled. Yanda’s potential retirement would create a gaping hole at right guard.

As the Ravens showed last season, they’ve already built a winning roster. DeCosta can find players through the draft, in free agency and down on the depth chart. But wherever he looks next this offseason, it won’t be with a thrifty mindset. Somewhere, somehow, the Ravens need to spend big.

4. Sign draft picks: The Ravens will likely have nine picks entering April’s draft, though that number could fluctuate over the next two months, and during the draft itself. Because the rookie wage scale is tied to the salary cap, it’s impossible to know just how much the Ravens might spend on base salaries and signing bonuses.

But teams’ 2019 spending offers a useful guide. Before compensatory picks are awarded, the Ravens have the Nos. 28, 60, 92, 119, 124, 153 and 203 draft picks in 2020. The cash spending on those draft slots last year, plus two fourth-round compensatory picks, which the Ravens are in line to receive, amounted to about $16 million.

As expected, the bulk of teams’ draft expenditures is on first-round picks. No. 25 overall pick Marquise Brown, for instance, had a signing bonus of $6.6 million and a base salary of $495,000, with a total cash spending of over $7 million. Running back Miles Sanders, whom the Eagles took with the No. 53 pick that the Ravens had traded the year before, accounted for just $2.4 million.