A year ago, the Ravens didn’t know whether they could keep Lamar Jackson, but they knew they needed more salary cap space to keep him. Extensions for franchise quarterbacks, especially quarterbacks named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, tend to cost a lot.

So in mid-March, days after placing the nonexclusive franchise tag on Jackson, general manager Eric DeCosta started to pull a lever he never had. As the start of free agency approached, DeCosta restructured the deals of defensive lineman Michael Pierce, running back Gus Edwards and right guard Kevin Zeitler, adding void years to limit their cap hit in 2023, their final year under contract.

Void years, a form of cap manipulation, amount to “dummy” years on a player’s contract, helping a team defer cap charges to the future. Zeitler’s 2023 charge, for instance, dropped from $9.5 million ($6.5 million in base salary and $3 million in prorated signing bonus money) to $5.2 million ($1.2 million in base salary, $3 million in prorated signing bonus money and $1 million in new prorated money). The remaining $4.3 million owed to Zeitler, all of it guaranteed, was spread over four void years.

The cap gymnastics paid off. The Ravens were not big spenders in free agency last year, content to re-sign core special teams players such as safety Geno Stone to modest deals and add cheap outside help such as wide receiver Nelson Agholor, but they had enough space when it mattered.

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In April, they signed wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to a one-year, $15 million deal. Beckham’s contract included void years, too, helping to clear space for their big-ticket investment: Jackson’s contract. In May, he signed a five-year, $260 million extension, making him the highest-paid player in NFL history.

Now, as the Ravens look to build another winning team around Jackson this offseason, they’ll have to reckon with the cost of doing business last offseason. Their first deadline will arrive early next week. At 4 p.m. Monday, the contracts of five pending free agents — Zeitler, Edwards, Agholor, Stone and cornerback Rock Ya-Sin — will void, pushing the money spread over their void years onto the Ravens’ 2024 cap. If none is re-signed, the total dead-money charge, according to Russell Street Report, would amount to nearly $10 million.

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For a Ravens front office searching for every bit of financial flexibility, some of the cap hits may seem either negligible or unavoidable. The dead-money charge for Stone, who finished second in the NFL in interceptions, would be only $600,000, but the Ravens already have two established starting safeties in Kyle Hamilton and Marcus Williams. Ya-Sin ($1.6 million charge) played sparingly after signing a one-year contract in May. Agholor ($1.7 million) and Edwards ($1.8 million), who had solid if unremarkable seasons in 2023, could be better served by testing their open-market value in free agency.

No one has more immediate leverage than Zeitler, a first-time Pro Bowl selection at age 33 who’s started 47 games over three years in Baltimore. If he’s not re-signed before Monday’s deadline, the Ravens would incur $4.3 million in dead money — about what it cost last offseason to sign a middle- to upper-tier backup quarterback. If Zeitler re-signs after Monday’s deadline, the Ravens would have to pay two bills: one for his old contract and one for his new contract.

DeCosta has made the offensive line a priority during his tenure, and he said at the Ravens’ season-ending news conference this month that contract talks with Zeitler were ongoing. “The offensive line is going to always be a preference,” he said.

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Zeitler said recently that he wants to remain in Baltimore, but his price tag could make that difficult. According to Pro Football Focus’ free-agent projections, Zeitler could be worth about $7.5 million annually. The two interior linemen the Ravens drafted last year, Andrew Vorhees and Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu, will count less than $2 million against the cap combined in 2024.

“Obviously, I want to be back as a Baltimore Raven; there is no doubt about that,” Zeitler said as he cleaned out his locker at the team facility last month. “I’ve loved my time here, I love the people here, love my teammates here, and I want to keep playing with them. Hopefully, that business side of football can be figured out nice and quick, and we can get that taken care of. But, whatever happens, I am ready to roll.”

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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