No matter how the Ravens’ 2023 season ended, this offseason was always going to be difficult. Not as difficult as, say, the Buffalo Bills’ or Miami Dolphins’, but challenging just the same. Eventually, quarterback Lamar Jackson’s salary cap hit would explode. Eventually, general manager Eric DeCosta would run out of room for all his rising stars. Eventually, some long-term deals would sour.

As the start of free agency looms — the NFL’s legal tampering period begins next Monday, and the signing period opens March 13 — the Ravens have moves to make and a Super Bowl-level roster to remake.

“We try to build this thing out so that we don’t have windows opening and closing,” DeCosta said Tuesday at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “That’s kind of been the Ravens’ mindset — that we want to be a competitive, good team every single year.”

This offseason, that will likely mean moving on without All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Queen, Pro Bowl right guard Kevin Zeitler or standout outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, among other notable pending free agents. Even with a higher-than-expected 2024 salary cap ($255.4 million), the Ravens’ financial flexibility is limited.

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According to Russell Street Report’s projections, the team currently has about $11 million in cap space. That spending power won’t go far; the Ravens should need about $15 million total to pay for their draft class, practice squad and in-season rainy-day fund, among other expenses.

Still, the Ravens can add help in free agency without shedding big-name contracts. It will just take some finagling. Here’s a 10-step plan for how the Ravens can reinforce their roster over the next few months. (Note: Cap projections are approximate, and the “target” space accounts for the $15 million needed after April’s draft.)

1. Restructure QB Lamar Jackson, TE Mark Andrews and ILB Roquan Smith’s deals

A simple restructure of Jackson’s contract, in which most of his 2024 base salary would be converted into a prorated signing bonus, would create $11.1 million in savings. A simple restructure of Andrews and Smith’s contracts would free up another $8.6 million. Altogether, that’s about $20 million in savings.

Restructures can lead to snowballing cap hits, but if the Ravens and Jackson get another deal done before his current contract expires in 2027, they could always push more money further down the road. Team officials could also free up considerably more cap space this offseason by restructuring their deals with cornerback Marlon Humphrey and safety Marcus Williams, among others.

Cap projection: $224 million ($31 million in space, $16 million under target)

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2. Agree on pay cut with LT Ronnie Stanley

Stanley’s $26.2 million cap hit is the second biggest on the Ravens’ 2024 books, a sky-high price tag for an injury-prone left tackle (10 missed games over the past two years). According to Sports Info Solutions, Stanley had the highest blown-block rate in both pass protection and run blocking among the Ravens’ regular starting linemen last year.

But there might be more upside in keeping him than parting ways. If he’s released, the Ravens would save just $8.3 million in cap space and leave $17.8 million in dead-money charges. If he’s designated as a post-June 1 release, the Ravens would create $15 million in cap space — but not until the first waves of free agency have passed. A decision will have to come soon; Stanley’s owed a $4 million roster bonus March 17 if he’s still on the team.

A pay cut in the range of $6 million, with performance incentive opportunities for Stanley, could be a compromise for both sides. Stanley, who’s under contract through 2025, probably wouldn’t find a robust market for his services in free agency, especially with so many high-quality tackles available in the draft. And the Ravens probably won’t be able to afford a sure-thing upgrade in free agency themselves. If they believe Stanley can return to his 2022 form, when he allowed just one sack and 16 pressures and was called for one holding penalty over 298 pass-blocking snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, why cut him?

Cap projection: $218 million ($37 million in space, $22 million under target)

3. Designate WR Odell Beckham Jr. with post-June 1 release

Beckham’s reworked one-year deal means the Ravens can create $1 million in savings if they release him with a post-June 1 designation. (A pre-June 1 release, meanwhile, would create $7 million in dead money.) Beckham’s signing last offseason served its purpose as an olive branch to Jackson in the Ravens’ off-and-on contract talks, and his veteran leadership was meaningful in the locker room. But with talented wide receivers available in the draft, and Beckham projected by PFF to earn a one-year, $10 million contract in free agency after a 565-yard season, the Ravens should be content to enter the spring with Zay Flowers, Rashod Bateman and Nelson Agholor leading their wide receiver room.

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Cap projection: $217 million ($38 million in space, $23 million under target)

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (3) catches a pass as Miami Dolphins cornerback Kader Kohou (4) tries to block during the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023.
The Ravens can save $8 million by releasing wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. with a post-June 1 designation. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

4. Release OLB Tyus Bowser

Bowser’s expected release would create $5.5 million in savings and $2 million in dead money. The outside linebacker played just nine games in 2022 after recovering from a torn Achilles tendon and spent the 2023 season on the non-football injury list with a mysterious knee injury. “Just a tough deal for him this year,” DeCosta said at the team’s season-ending news conference last month, “and we’ll have to deal with it.”

Cap projection: $211.5 million ($43.5 million in space, $28.5 million under target)

5. Lower FB Patrick Ricard’s cap hit

Ricard’s $5.2 million cap hit makes him a potential cap casualty; the Ravens would create $4 million in space by releasing him. The four-time Pro Bowl pick played 443 offensive snaps in his first year under coordinator Todd Monken, his fewest since 2020, and 39% of the offense’s snaps overall, his lowest share since 2019.

But Ricard’s also the closest thing the Ravens have to a reliable in-line tight end. While his presence on designed runs didn’t single-handedly boost the Ravens’ ground game in 2023, his ability to sell play action and stymie edge rushers on drop-backs helped lift their passing attack, often substantially.

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Ricard, who will turn 30 in May, might not be the foundational piece he was in Greg Roman’s offense, but he could be useful in 2024 and beyond. If the Ravens can create, say, $2 million in savings, either by tacking on void years or extending Ricard’s contract beyond 2024, they’d give themselves more time to find a potential replacement.

Cap projection: $209.5 million ($45.5 million in space, $30.5 million under target)

6. Sign OL Patrick Mekari to extension

Mekari’s entering the final year of his deal with a $6.4 million cap hit. The Ravens would open up $4.4 million in cap space by releasing Mekari, but his value as a swing tackle, especially given Stanley’s injury history, should keep his spot safe.

If the Ravens believe Mekari’s disappointing 2023 was an aberration — he allowed pressures more often and faster than in any prior season, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats — there could be value in buying low and seeking an extension that could create around $2.5 million in savings. Mekari is only 26, and the Ravens could use some continuity out wide if next season is the last for both Stanley and right tackle Morgan Moses.

Cap projection: $207 million ($48 million in space, $33 million under target)

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Putting the franchise tag on Justin Madubuike would cost $22 million this season but give the Ravens time to negotiate a long-term deal with the All-Pro selection. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

7. Place franchise tag on DL Justin Madubuike

DeCosta said Tuesday that the Ravens would “probably” tag Madubuike if no long-term deal is reached by Tuesday’s deadline. The tag would cost about $22 million in 2024, but it’d also give the Ravens more time to negotiate exclusively with Madubuike, an All-Pro coming off one of the best seasons ever by a Ravens defensive lineman. An extension might not arrive quickly, but it would likely lower Madubuike’s cap hit for this season.

Cap projection: $229 million ($26 million in space, $11 million under target)

8. Sign RB Tony Pollard

The Ravens have been linked to big-name running backs since last season’s trade deadline. Now, with Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins headed to free agency, and Keaton Mitchell’s ACL rehabilitation clouding his 2024 availability, the running back room could go anywhere. Justice Hill is a complementary option, and coach John Harbaugh has been reluctant to lean on rookies at the position, especially early.

The Ravens might not have the means to win a bidding war for Saquon Barkley or Derrick Henry, but Pollard could deliver similar value at a significant discount. PFF projects the Dallas Cowboys running back to get a three-year, $24 million offer in free agency, while Spotrac has his market value at $13.1 million on a two-year deal. The glut of capable backs available in free agency could drive Pollard’s price down even further.

Pollard’s 2022 season ended with a high-ankle sprain and fractured fibula, and he followed up with a disappointing 2023, finishing with a career-low 4.0 yards per carry and career-low 5.7 yards per catch. But he’s long been one of the NFL’s most efficient runners. Until last year, his fifth in the NFL, Pollard had run for more yards than expected in every season with the Cowboys, according to NGS. From 2019 to 2022, he ranked 25th among 85 qualifying running backs in rushing success rate, according to TruMedia — no doubt helped by Dallas’ talented offensive line but still higher than Henry (33rd) and Barkley (70th).

Pollard also graded well in pass protection last season, according to PFF, and has three straight seasons with at least 39 catches and 300 receiving yards. The Ravens could structure a two-year deal for the 26-year-old that counts for $4 million against the cap in 2024.

Cap projection: $233 million ($22 million in space, $7 million under target)

9. Re-sign DL Brent Urban, LB Malik Harrison, ILB Del’Shawn Phillips, CB Ronald Darby and S Daryl Worley

The bulk of the Ravens’ signings this offseason, much like last offseason, should be cheap extensions that help stabilize their special teams and round out their depth chart. A handful of short-term deals for this group could cost about $4 million against the cap, though the value of their deals could be double that. (From the start of the league year until the first week of the regular season, only a team’s 51 most expensive contracts count against its salary cap, so the relative impact of the Ravens’ small deals would be marginal.)

Urban, who’s signed one-year deals for less than $1.3 million each of the past three seasons, set a career high with three sacks and five tackles for loss in 17 games last year. The 32-year-old played 24% of the Ravens’ defensive snaps overall and 17% of their special teams snaps.

Harrison can line up as an inside or outside linebacker and finished second on the team in special teams snaps despite a late-season groin injury. His ability to set the edge against heavy-personnel groupings proved important in wins against the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions, among others.

Phillips led the Ravens in special teams snaps and was solid in his Week 18 start against the Pittsburgh Steelers, recording 13 tackles (one for loss) and a forced fumble. His average cap hit over his two years in Baltimore has been about $1 million.

Darby played 16 games last season, starting seven, and allowed just 23 completions on 48 targets as the nearest defender in coverage, according to NGS. His coverage success rate was a solid 60.4%, just behind Humphrey (61.7%) and ahead of Brandon Stephens (58.1%). Darby, 30, could be even better in 2024, when he’ll be two years removed from the ACL tear that ended his 2022 season with the Denver Broncos.

Worley struggled with injuries last season, ending the season on injured reserve after 12 games and two starts, but he’s a valuable special teams player who transitioned capably from cornerback to safety in his first year at the position.

Cap projection: $237 million ($18 million in space, $3 million under target)

10. Fill out the roster with later-wave signing (or signings)

DeCosta doesn’t mind playing the waiting game. He waited until May to sign cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, until July to sign cornerback Arthur Maulet, until August to sign Clowney and Darby, and until September to sign outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy. There are always useful players who become available later in the offseason, and they’re usually the kind of players DeCosta likes to target, entering a market with fewer bidders and not factoring into the NFL’s compensatory-pick calculus.

Will they be high-profile names? Probably not. But the Ravens enter the offseason with barely enough cap space to spend on medium-profile names. They’ll likely have to fill holes at several positions — most notably guard, running back, wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback — with in-house pieces and draft picks.

Cap projection: $240 million ($15 million in space, level with target)

An earlier version of this story misstated the cap implications of moves involving wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and several potential re-signings.