Ravens Salary Cap Position After 2019 NFL Draft
After another offseason of speculation of who teams would pick and hours of mock draft coverage that none of us will get back, the NFL draft is over and the Ravens secured some draft picks that could help last year’s playoff team become a Super Bowl contender if quarterback Lamar Jackson improves in year two. The rushing attack and defense gives the Ravens a strong ball-control system to minimize the need for Jackson to carry the team to victory, while last week’s draft secured some offensive weapons that will get open and provide big play potential.
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After the draft, the Ravens have $15.1 million in cap space with just under $6.7 million going to the eight players drafted. Jason Fitzgerald from Over The Cap confirmed that the team should have about $2.3 million in cap space after accounting for the cost of draft players under the Top 51 rules that govern the salary cap prior to Week 1 of the NFL season. This means the Ravens have about $12.8 million in potential cap space to improve the few weaknesses on the roster. There’s a lot to like about the offseason, this team got better in the short-term and the long-term.
In the backfield, Mark Ingram is a great addition to Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon, two backs who were productive when Jackson was leading their read-option offense. Giving a 30-year old running back a three-year contract worth $15.5 million bears risk, but he’s performed at a high level the last three seasons and it’s a low-cost for an offense that’s going to lean on it’s run game. His suspension for PEDs last season does worry me as an aging player. They are called performance-enhancing drugs because they, you know, enhance performance.
Evan Silva says Justice Hill could be Alvin Kamara lite in this offense. While analytics explain that passing is more effective and efficient in today’s NFL, the Ravens have constructed an offense that can wear defenses out. With four viable running backs and their variety of styles, plus Jackson, this should be the best rushing offense in the NFL.
Additions in the draft at receiver added a ton of speed with Hill. This will create the big play threat that an offense so focused in rushing the football needs. Pete Carroll has a statistic he cites that if an offense has an explosive play of 16+ yards or an explosive run play of 12+ yards, they will score over 75% of the time.
After years of never drafting receivers early in the draft to Joe Flacco led offenses, Eric DeCosta secured Jackson two in the first three rounds. The most frequent comparison for first round pick Marquise Brown is DeSean Jackson, while third round pick Miles Boykin draws comparisons to Kenny Golladay. Willie Snead is still around and hopefully forced into a smaller role in 2018, while Seth Roberts is a nice veteran addition for what will be a limited role.
Considering who Lamar Jackson currently is as a passer, the team strategy is going to focus on moving the chains with the strong running game, then getting the big plays from these receivers. Jackson isn’t the kind of accurate thrower who is going to routinely and methodically pass the offense down the field in the modern quick passing style we see around the league, this offense is going to have to get some big plays.
If the Ravens have indeed secured two starting caliber receivers, they’ve filled out a solid offense. Mark Andrews is one of the best young tight ends in the NFL with 552 yards and three touchdowns on 34 catches in 2018 and Hayden Hurst will be more than 13 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown.
John Harbaugh has said that they’ve gone into this offseason with the intention of building the offense from the ground up, which is a really exciting prospect with offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s success with read-option quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor, plus assistant head coach, receivers coach, and passing coordinator David Culley. Culley has spent 18-years as a member of Andy Reid’s staff, so the meshing of the two systems with the variety of talent at the skill positions should help Jackson and the offense take a step forward. Those Eagles teams made NFC Championships with far less talent at receiver. Great offensive systems and play-callers get more out of players, they’re able to do more with less.
Harbaugh has also suggested that sixth round pick Trace McSorley will serve a sort of Taysom Hill role, which could make the offense more dynamic and provide some special plays that help eek out some of the low-scoring, tight games they’re built to win.
The defense that Wink Martindale re-schemed in 2018 to become one the top defense in the NFL lost Eric Weddle and gained Earl Thomas, who still looked like the best free safety in the NFL last season before getting injured. The team retained cornerback Jimmy Smith, which was the right move as the $9.5 million they would have saved releasing him wouldn’t have been worth the value of the depth of this defensive backfield.
Neil Hornsby from Pro Football Focus has said that the website’s new wins above replacement statistic weighs pass coverage as more important than pass rush “because offenses can compensate for the latter,” via the quarterback getting rid of the ball very quickly.
On this premise, a defensive backfield of Thomas, Tony Jefferson, Marlon Humphries, Tavon Young, and Smith should be one of the best in the league and vitally important in the Ravens quest to win through a strategy of ball control. If the Ravens can shut down opposing passing offenses, they morph the game into a strategic battle of who does more in a grind it out, low-scoring affair. It becomes a game of the Ravens defense making less mistakes than their opponents do.
Third round pick Jaylon Ferguson, a defensive end from Louisiana Tech, actually broke departed legend Terrell Suggs’ all-time sack record in college. Silva writes that he might have been a first-rounder if not for a fight that happened at a McDonald’s before college, which caused the NFL to rescind his Combine invite amid concerns of the league’s image. By all accounts it seems the Ravens got a very talented player who should contribute immediately. ZaDarius Smith was a loss, but he’s not worth the $16.5 million per season Green Bay just paid him. The team also must be hopeful that Tim Williams and Tyrus Bowser step into bigger roles in their third years in the NFL.
CJ Mosley will never be worth the $17 million the Jets gave him as an inside linebacker and it seems Baltimore will be able to rely on Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young, but should likely add some depth in free agency.
It all leads to a Ravens roster whose only real needs are an improvement at center, some depth at inside linebacker, and, dependent on how the team feels about Williams and Bowser, maybe some help at edge rusher.
Ezekiel Ansah’s visit to the facility is a nice sign. A signing like Ansah would be the kind of value signing that Elvis Dumervil was in 2013 at $5.75 million per season over four years. Dumervil produced 10 sacks per 16 games during his time in purple and black. I imagine that Alex Okafor’s three-year, $24 million pact with the Chiefs stands as a reasonable expectation for what the Ravens want to sign Ansah at with a willingness to go to $10 million per year. I imagine Ansah looks at the $16.5 million that Smith just signed for and envies that, but he’s not going to get near that, so he’s probably reset expectations near $12 million.
In my study of top teams, it seems that the best organizations seem to find these typically third contract values at edge rusher, a position that ages fairly well and has a very reasonable player cost when they start to approach 30-years old. These organizations seem to avoid players at this position entering their second contracts with the Patriots famously trading away Chandler Jones to the Cardinals prior to the 2016 season. Jones would go on to continue to be one of the best edge defenders in the NFL on these bad Cardinals teams the last few years, leading the league in sacks and tackles for loss in 2017. Meanwhile, the Patriots have been in the last three Super Bowls and didn’t miss a beat without Jones. We all know they won’t suffer from the loss of Trey Flowers this offseason either, Belichick always finds a way with third contract trade acquisition Michael Bennett being part of that solution. The Ravens are one of these organizations.
Ansah isn’t a “third contract player,” but rather a player entering his seventh year after a five-year rookie deal and a franchise tag. The Ghanaian born and bred Ansah entered the league late at the age of 24 after coming to the sport during his sophomore year at BYU, where he attended after being recruited to the school by a missionary who became a friend. Ansah turns 30 years old on May 29th and he’s coming off an injury-shortened season, which is part of what’s led to the unsatisfactory market that has him still unsigned.
Earl Thomas makes a team that ranked second in the NFL with just 5.4 net yards per pass attempt, and fifth in total passing yards allowed, even better. Replacing the loss of Suggs and Smith with Ferguson and Ansah would help continue to produce an elite pass defense.
Looking at the depth at center and at inside linebacker, Matt Skura is slated to be the started in 2019, while 2018 sixth round pick Bradley Bozeman out of Alabama is his competition on the roster. If the staff thinks there’s a need to add depth to the interior of the offensive line, 34-year old center John Sullivan, who played for the Super Bowl runner up Rams who were tops in the NFL in run blocking and in the top ten in pass blocking, is still a free agent. He would probably only cost two to three million per year, but Travis Swanson, previously of the Dolphins, would be a cheaper option. The Chargers Mike Pouncey is a potential cut or trade candidate, but that seems less likely for Baltimore.
Left guard Alex Lewis is a bit of a liability heading into his third season, but fourth round pick Ben Powers out of Oklahoma was one of the best pass blockers in college the last two years earning PFF pass blocking grades of 87.7 his junior year and 88.9 his senior year. Powers could be the piece that improves this offensive line the most.
At linebacker, Manti Te’o is still on the market and he’s a player that many had linked to the Ravens during the draft process. He won’t cost more than $2 million per season. Two Lees at linebacker make for potential trade candidates with late round picks likely being all it takes to secure them.
Sean Lee is beloved in Dallas, but injuries and the emergence of Jaylon Smith and 2018 first round pick Leighton Vander Esch have made him expendable. The Cowboys have a projected $20 million in cap space before factoring in their rookies, but Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott, and Byron Jones are all up for extensions, so the $2.9 million they could save by releasing Sean.
With the additions of Mosley to a linebacker group that already had Avery Williamson, plus the drafting of Blake Cashman out of Minnesota in the fifth round, Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports projects that former first round pick Darron Lee is someone the team will be looking to move on from. Sean would cost a new team just over $3 million, while Darron would cost $1.3 million.
From a cap perspective, everything they need could be had with the current $12.8 million in cap space. If they were to sign Ansah and he cost say $10 or even $12 million per year, the team could structure it in a way that pushed some of that money and cap accounting into 2020 where the Ravens currently have $57 million in cap space. They could use the signing bonus to get him higher year one earnings with a lower year one cap hit.
If Baltimore does need to clear some space for another move, people have mentioned Brandon Williams as a cut or trade candidate with the drafting of Daylon Mack and Michael Pierce becoming an elite interior defender. Williams could create $6.25 million in cap space versus his current $14.1 million cap hit, but that’s not something I see the team doing. While Williams skills as a run stopper aren’t as highly valued as pass rushers, with the defensive backfield the team has, a run stopper up the middle could really restrict the strategies an opponent could employ on offense.
Brandon Carr with his $7 million cap hit with just $1 million in dead money is still a candidate for a release. An extension for Ronnie Stanley could also decrease his $12.9 million cap hit, but with the way the tackle market is exploding, it’s going to take a high number to stop him from waiting for free agency.
Overall, the Ravens are in a strong salary cap position for 2019 and moving forward. That almost $60 million in space for 2020 is more than enough to continue to build this team around Jackson with his low-cost being a huge reason for the excitement that surrounds this organization heading into the season. The 2019 season will be Baltimore’s first real crack at this Super Bowl window, but 2020 could be even better, especially considering that Jackson will have another year to improve and mature as a passer, which, according to PFF, is something he’s done every year of his carer back to his freshman year at Louisville.
Zack Moore is a former college football player at the University of Rhode Island. He received his MBA from Rutgers Business School and has written for Over The Cap since 2014. He is the author of Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, which offers insight into how teams use data and analytics to create sustainable, competitive teams through the salary cap that are capable of competing for championships. Zack’s research has appeared on various platforms including ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, USA Today, and the NFL Network.