Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta has had over two years to negotiate a long-term deal with quarterback Lamar Jackson. DeCosta’s had just as long to figure out a plan in case those negotiations went nowhere.
Now, with contract talks stalled out and the Ravens expected to designate Jackson with the franchise tag by Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline, the first step of DeCosta’s backup plan will soon come into focus.
“There’s a couple different situations where that can go,” he said Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. The nonexclusive franchise tag would cost less but expose the Ravens to more risk. The exclusive franchise tag would cost more but limit Jackson’s range of offers. Both tenders to Jackson would represent by far the biggest salary cap hit on the 2023 roster.
“Sure, they’re big numbers,” DeCosta added. “We’ve known they’re big numbers. We’re prepared for that. And we’ve got four, five or six different plans based on what happens over the next 10 days.”
It’s hard to imagine a plan that won’t dramatically reshape the Ravens’ roster this offseason. According to Russell Street Report, the Ravens are projected to have $22.5 million in 2023 salary cap space — and that’s before they decide on Jackson’s tag.
That’s before the Ravens set aside about $11 million for their practice squad and in-season injury replacements. That’s before they make space for their smaller rookie class, which, according to salary cap website Over The Cap, requires $2.5 million in cap space. That’s before the NFL’s salary cap mechanics add another small charge to their 2023 bill — in this case, a projected $1.5 million.
However the Ravens proceed, it won’t be simple or painless. In all likelihood, starters will be released, contracts restructured and spending restricted as DeCosta tries to accommodate Jackson’s deal before and after the new league year starts March 15.
Here’s a look at how the Ravens’ short-term plans could change depending on which franchise tag they choose. In this case, the team’s hypothetical starting point is $7.5 million under the cap, a figure that attempts to account for most of those unavoidable future expenses, such as draft picks.
1. Designate QB Lamar Jackson with nonexclusive tag
No move would help the Ravens’ financial picture more than a long-term extension, especially one with a 2023 cap hit of $30 million or less. A $32.4 million nonexclusive tag would come close, but it’s also fraught with risk. If the Ravens couldn’t match another team’s offer sheet, they’d lose Jackson and get only two first-round picks in return. Considering Jackson’s transformative potential, the Ravens might have to settle for a pair of late-first-round picks — draft capital that’s incommensurate with his value to the team.
Cap space: $24.9 million over the cap
2. Restructure contracts of TE Mark Andrews and CB Marlon Humphrey
Under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, teams can convert part of a player’s salary into a prorated bonus more easily dispersed over a long contract. The Ravens have typically used restructures only as a last resort, reluctant to risk the kind of self-perpetuating cap troubles that have ensnared the New Orleans Saints in recent years.
Last year, though, they restructured two deals, creating over $13 million in space by tweaking the contracts of Humphrey and left tackle Ronnie Stanley. This year, DeCosta could do it again. According to Over The Cap, the Ravens could create $11.7 million in cap space by restructuring the contracts of Humphrey ($7.3 million) and Andrews ($4.4 million).
Restructures offer only temporary relief, however. At some point, the full bill comes due.
“As the GM, I’ve always felt that my job was the caretaker of the organization in the short term, but also the long term,” DeCosta said in 2021. “Eschewing one or the other is basically saying like, ‘OK, I want us to be good in 2022, but I also want us to be good in 2025.’ That’s the challenge. That’s the day-to-day challenge that I face internally, how do I build a team that can be good every single year with no window that’s opening or closing.”
Cap space: $13.2 million over the cap
3. Release DL Calais Campbell, RB Gus Edwards and S Chuck Clark
Here’s where it gets tricky.
Campbell, who turns 37 in September, is a team leader and has been one of the NFL’s most reliable interior linemen. He also represents $7 million in potential cap savings.
Edwards averaged 5 yards per carry last year and 1.03 rush yards over expectation per carry, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, one of the NFL’s best rates among running backs. He also represents $4.4 million in potential savings.
Clark is a beloved teammate, the defense’s signal-caller and hasn’t missed a defensive snap over the past three seasons. He also represents $3.6 million in potential savings.
“Every season, that new league year opens up, you know that you’re going to take on some water and you’re going to have to make some tough choices about the team because we’re not just trying to win this year,” DeCosta said at the combine. “We’re trying to win four years from now as well.”
The Ravens have the depth along the defensive line and at safety to absorb exits from Campbell and Clark, respectively. Edwards, though, would be tougher to replace; J.K. Dobbins is the team’s only other running back under contract next season.
Altogether, the Ravens could create $15 million in space and just $6.3 million in dead money with this trio of cuts.
Cap space: $1.8 million under the cap
4. Extend G Kevin Zeitler
As a pass blocker, Zeitler allowed just two sacks and 16 quarterback pressures last season, according to Pro Football Focus. As a run blocker, he remains a versatile technician. Durability isn’t much of a concern, either; Zeitler’s Week 14 absence against the Pittsburgh Steelers last year was his first missed game since 2015.
Zeitler, who turns 33 on Wednesday, is set to make $6.5 million in salary in 2023, the last season of his three-year, $22.5 million contract. A short-term extension could not only keep Zeitler from reaching free agency next year but also convert part of that salary into a signing bonus. That could offer the Ravens, say, $4 million in cap relief.
Cap space: $5.8 million under the cap
5. Tender QB Tyler Huntley
Teams must submit their restricted-free-agent tenders by March 15; otherwise, untendered players head to unrestricted free agency. Huntley’s uneven 2022 — he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, had a drop-off in rushing success and dealt with tendinitis in his throwing shoulder — could tempt the Ravens to not place a tender on their top restricted free agent. But as the price of starting quarterbacks goes up, so, too, does the price of backups. A right-of-first-refusal tender for Huntley, the cheapest tender available, would cost $2.6 million and give the Ravens the right to match any offer sheet he signs with another team.
Cap space: $3.2 million under the cap
6. Re-sign S Geno Stone, LS Nick Moore
While Huntley headlines the Ravens’ restricted-free-agent class, Stone and Moore can’t be overlooked. Stone finished third on the team in special teams snaps last season and graded out well in his seven starts for injured safety Marcus Williams. Moore was named to the Pro Bowl in his second year as the team’s starting long snapper. If right-of-first-refusal tenders are too costly for the Ravens, they could offer cheaper and potentially longer-term deals.
Cap space: $0
1. Designate QB Lamar Jackson with exclusive tag
The safer option is also the more expensive option. While the exclusive tag would initially count $32.4 million against the cap — the value of the nonexclusive tag — it would rise after April 21 to about $45 million, the projected average of the top five 2023 quarterback salaries.
By tying up about 20% of the salary cap in Jackson’s salary, the Ravens would maintain control over his contractual rights this year and leverage in possible trade talks.
Cap space: $37.5 million over the cap
2. Restructure contracts of TE Mark Andrews, CB Marlon Humphrey, LT Ronnie Stanley and OLB Tyus Bowser
In this scenario, the Ravens might not stop at two restructures. By also adjusting the 2023 cap hits of Stanley and Bowser — a significant risk, given their injury history — they would create another $9.3 million in savings, for $21 million in total restructure relief.
Other contracts could be tweaked as well, including inside linebacker Roquan Smith ($2.7 million in savings), offensive lineman Patrick Mekari ($1.5 million) and defensive lineman Michael Pierce’s ($1.4 million).
Cap space: $16.5 million over the cap
3. Release DL Calais Campbell, RB Gus Edwards, S Chuck Clark and WR Devin Duvernay
Duvernay’s increased salary — up from $1 million in 2022 to $4.3 million in 2023, thanks to proven performance escalators rewarding his Pro Bowl appearances — makes him a potential cap casualty. If the Ravens release the 2020 third-round pick, they would have just one wide receiver under contract with more than 10 catches last season: Rashod Bateman (15 catches for 285 yards and two touchdowns). They would also push this batch of cuts up to $19.3 million in savings.
Cap space: $2.8 million under the cap
4. Extend G Kevin Zeitler
With starting left guard Ben Powers set to strike it rich in free agency, and consistency still eluding 2021 third-round pick Ben Cleveland, the Ravens can’t really afford to part with their starting right guard. An extension here would make sense, too.
Cap space: $6.8 million under the cap
5. Tender QB Tyler Huntley
The Ravens will need a capable backup quarterback, especially if Jackson holds out during offseason workouts and training camp. A right-of-first-refusal tender for Huntley would be risky, but the Ravens have to cut costs along the margins of the position somehow.
Cap space: $4.2 million under the cap
6. Re-sign S Geno Stone, LS Nick Moore
With a little more spending power, the Ravens could look to re-sign another restricted free agent, like inside linebacker Kristian Welch, or set aside some cap space for one of their unrestricted free agents, like tight end Josh Oliver or cornerback Kyle Fuller.
However they proceed, though, DeCosta won’t have much money to spend. Not without a lot more help. Not without a lot more moves.
Cap space: $0