On late Monday morning, an hour before the NFL’s “legal tampering” period opened, Eric DeCosta assumed a familiar posture. The Ravens had called a news conference because they had just signed a very talented player to a very large contract. And that, their general manager explained, was a very good thing.

“We’ve always strived to keep our best young players here in Baltimore, and I’m thrilled that this is another example of that,” DeCosta said. To his right was All-Pro defensive lineman Justin Madubuike, who had just signed a four-year, $98 million extension, one of the richest contracts ever at the position. “We hope our fan base is excited. We know Justin’s excited, and we can’t wait to see what the next four years look like.”

They could look very different from the previous four years. The Ravens have built a Super Bowl-level roster around a talented young core, but young talent does not stay cheap for long. The front office’s long-held approach to team-building — draft, develop and retain rising stars — should keep the Ravens competitive. It could also leave them vulnerable to their own success, forced into salary cap quagmires that prove untenable.

Madubuike’s deal was the third in 14 months that the Ravens paid record money to finalize: $75.5 million guaranteed at signing, briefly the record for defensive tackles. In May, the Ravens signed quarterback Lamar Jackson to a five-year extension that made him — again, briefly — the NFL’s highest-paid player ($52 million annually). In January 2023, Roquan Smith became the league’s highest-paid off-ball linebacker with a five-year, $100 million contract.

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It’s not bad business. For every ascending player the Ravens secure to a megadeal, there are untold millions saved in the free-agent spending they’d need to sign a standout of comparable value. But for every megadeal the Ravens sign, especially in windows as compressed as this, the more intertwined the team’s success becomes with that of their big-ticket items. The margin for error in roster management narrows considerably.

Consider: In 2022 and 2023, the Ravens’ five biggest cap hits accounted for about a third of their cap space, according to Spotrac. This offseason, unless the deals for left tackle Ronnie Stanley or cornerback Marlon Humphrey are reworked, 45.7% of the Ravens’ cap would be tied up in five players. In 2025, the top five would account for about 49.6% of a projected $273.3 million cap. In 2026, with a $292.4 million cap, a projected 56.4%.

Salary cap numbers are flexible, but only to a point. Under DeCosta, the Ravens have typically offered lucrative extensions that make up for lower-than-expected contract values with higher-than-expected guarantees. Joel Corry, a former NFL agent and current salary cap and contract analyst for CBS Sports, wrote in 2022 that tight end Mark Andrews’ four-year, $56 million contract extension, signed the year before, “sticks out like a sore thumb”: It made Andrews only the NFL’s third-highest-paid tight end, but it guaranteed $30 million at signing, and his 2023 salary became fully guaranteed in March 2022.

And the more money a player is guaranteed, the harder they are to move on from. Stanley’s five-year, $98.8 million extension in 2020 included $64.2 million guaranteed, and after two contract restructures in recent years — in which the team converted part of his base salary into a prorated signing bonus to help unlock cap space — the team would create $17.8 million in dead money and save only $8.3 million if it released him. (A post-June 1 designation, meanwhile, would lead to $15 million in savings and $11.2 million in dead-money charges.) Humphrey, who’s dealt with his own injury woes since signing a five-year, $97.5 million extension in 2020, is effectively unreleasable this offseason for the same reasons.

“We try to consider all the different consequences of these types of things,” DeCosta said of Madubuike’s extension. He noted that team officials had considered the team’s projected cap outlook through 2027, the last year of Madubuike’s new deal. “Obviously, with a franchise quarterback and what those contracts look like ... the landscape changes, so every deal you do is critically important in the grand scheme of things, and that’s why I think you all can get a sense for the feeling we have towards Justin, that we were willing to commit to a contract like this.”

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DeCosta knows where a bad batch of big bets can land a team. Joe Hortiz, who worked under DeCosta as the Ravens’ director of player personnel, was named the Los Angeles Chargers’ general manager in January to help salvage a roster ruined by mismanagement. The Chargers entered this week in cap hell, $20.6 million over the limit; their lone recourse is to shed big-name players, among them pass rushers Khalil Mack ($38.5 million cap hit) and Joey Bosa ($36.6 million) and wide receivers Keenan Allen ($34.7 million) and Mike Williams ($32.5 million). Even those savings would be offset by substantial dead-cap charges; the lowest of the four is Allen’s, at $11.6 million.

In San Francisco, meanwhile, the 49ers have gambled on high-priced investments and reaped the rewards. Extensions for left tackle Trent Williams, tight end George Kittle, wide receiver Deebo Samuel, defensive linemen Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa and inside linebacker Fred Warner have, on the whole, delivered surplus value to the team. With crucial young players like quarterback Brock Purdy and safety Talanoa Hufanga signed to bargain-bin rookie contracts, the 49ers have gone a combined 27-9 over the past two seasons. Last month, they came within a fourth-quarter stop of winning Super Bowl LVIII.

The Ravens’ own championship aspirations could come to rest on those two demographics: the well-paid stars and the overachieving youngsters. As the back-loaded deals of players like Jackson land on the cap, second or third contracts for middle-class veterans like right tackle Morgan Moses and fullback Patrick Ricard could become vanishingly rare.

“You know you just can’t keep every single player on your team,” said DeCosta, who watched as the Ravens struggled to compete a decade ago with top-dollar contracts for players like quarterback Joe Flacco, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. “That’s a frustrating aspect of this job that I have, so you have to keep your very best, if you can.”

The Ravens’ best strategy for the future is one DeCosta has long pursued: Draft as many players as possible. In April 2021, during the first few months in which Jackson was eligible for an extension, DeCosta said at a predraft news conference that the Ravens would have the opportunity to take about 20 players over the next two drafts. “We like that number. It keeps us young, but also experienced across the roster, and that should give us a chance to compete long term.”

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The Ravens have eight picks in this year’s draft and, depending on how their free-agent spending unfolds this offseason, could have at least 10 in next year’s. DeCosta, who has likened draft picks to lottery tickets, will need as many winners as possible. The Ravens’ spending spree is likely far from over. Next offseason, All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton and Pro Bowl center Tyler Linderbaum will become eligible for extensions. If the Ravens hold true to their homegrown philosophy, DeCosta could push for new deals, fully aware of what they might cost and what they might yield.

“We will have to be financially responsible in most cases, because we do have a lot of money going to very good players,” DeCosta said. “That’s a good problem to have, in a lot of ways, because it means you’re going to have a good team. But it also means that there are going to be some situations where you just have to let players test the market and see what they can get elsewhere, and that can be a frustrating thing, especially for a team that likes to draft. …

“I started out as a scout, and so the idea that you can draft a really good player, keep him for four years and watch him go play elsewhere is frustrating. But this is the business we have chosen, and we’ll abide by those salary cap rules and hopefully make good decisions moving forward.”

Jonas Shaffer is a Ravens beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun. Shaffer graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring.

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