Baltimore is a winner in the NFL’s Salary Cap restructuring for 2021
With the players voting to ratify the negotiated changes to the CBA on Friday, a big shoe dropped as far as how the salary cap will be handled in future years. The projected shortage of revenues due to not hosting fans on account of COVID-19 will put the NFL’s salary cap at a minimum of $175 million in 2021.
This is big news for the Ravens because they are set up very well for this scenario with a number of good young players and depth pieces under contract. The 2021 season shows the Ravens according to Over The Cap being $30 million under the cap, which is the eighth-highest amount in the NFL. While plenty of useful players are set to become free agents after the season (Willie Snead, Jimmy Smith, Matt Skura, Tyus Bowers, Pernell McPhee), the biggest two are Matt Judon and Ronnie Stanley.
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Free agency next offseason is going to be a bloodbath for NFL players, which helps Baltimore in two distinctly different ways: they’ll deal with fewer threats to Judon and Stanley, and the NFL’s middle class is not going to make much money at all in 2021.
While I expect Stanley to have many suitors should he make it to free agency no matter what the market looks like, I think this news is extremely bad timing for any hopes of challenging Laremy Tunsil’s contract with the Texans. If only 12 of the NFL’s 32 teams have more than $25 million in cap space, it will take more maneuvering for teams to present an offer to Stanley without that becoming their entire offseason. Most teams are fairly risk-averse in that area, which will benefit Baltimore. I’m not saying there’s zero chance Stanley leaves, and I’m not saying that the Ravens are going to lock him up cheaply and save a fortune — but I do think these circumstances are certainly favorable for him to stay.
The other side of that hits with Judon, who I wrote about earlier this offseason. If the Ravens want Judon back long-term, there will never be a better window for them to make a move, because he is not a perfect pass rusher in a vacuum and there are teams that will decide he has too many warts to make the cut for a franchise-type payment. Meanwhile, Judon and his representatives may look at his age and decide he’s never going to have another opportunity for a big payout. Judon is the kind of player who gets a big free agent contract because every team has $35 million in cap space and he is an incremental upgrade. He is not the kind of franchise-changing superstar that Stanley is, and I expect the market for his services to be lower than it normally would.
The final boot that drops with this cap reduction is something that you may have experience with. Have you ever done an auction draft of some sort in a fantasy league and been the only player left without any money to bid? What you have at that moment is essentially control of the board. The entire rest of the draft runs through you. And while there are many teams with cap space left, not many of them have proved to be as aggressive as Baltimore over the last few offseasons.
This sets up extremely well for the Ravens because they’ve shown some progressive stripes in their decision-making, particularly in getting Calais Campbell from Jacksonville for the exact same round of pick they would later get for Chris Wormley. The NFL has a tendency to undervalue players in Campbell’s class: older, productive vets that miss some games while managing injuries. And because that class of player is more likely to find themselves on the cutting block in 2021’s offseason, the Ravens will have the opportunity to find more value from the catbird seat. Maybe they could come up with a player like Brandon Graham (Eagles project to be $84 million over the 2021 cap) or Julio Jones (Falcons project to be $39 million over the cap in 2021) in the case of a regime change.
And the other side of that is that when all these players hit free agency and realize that they can’t get paid and that one team’s money is as good as another’s, that is a powerful signal to the players that Ring Chasing mode has been engaged. If you’ve already made plenty of money in your career, and you’re going to make $3 million with the Jets or $1 million to play a big role for a team that has Lamar Jackson at quarterback, which one are you going to pick? This is a huge boon for any of the teams that has situated themselves as a team of the present and any team that has a great coaching staff, which usually means the rich teams will only get richer. Practically, it means that any major hole the organization has is easily solved. Instead of needing to find a Pernell McPhee to man the outside, a player like Ryan Kerrigan may look at the offers he has and decide that the Ravens make the most sense for him.
In any rational sense, a salary cap change always does the most good to the best teams and the teams that pound the phones the most. Baltimore fits both of those. And unless they need to dole out an emergency extension to Lamar Jackson or something, there’s not many teams that stand to benefit more from the cap reduction than the Ravens.
Rivers McCown is a writer and editor who has written for ESPN.com, Bleacher Report, USA Today, and Deadspin, among other places. He’s edited for Football Outsiders, Rookie Scouting Portfolio, and Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue.