Salary cap reduction? Flat cap? Ravens are well positioned for whatever happens in 2021 offseason.

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Marquise Brown (15) makes a reception against the Tennessee Titans' Adoree' Jackson at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on January 11, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/TNS)
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By Jonas Shaffer The Baltimore Sun (TNS)

BALTIMORE — Every day, the NFL’s pot of gold seems to get a little smaller.

In only the past week or so, league owners approved a proposal to cover the first six to eight rows of stadium seating and offer signage space to corporate sponsors. Then some teams began offering full 2020 refunds to season-ticket holders. Then the NFL’s four-game preseason schedule was cut in half.

The financial impact of a season transformed by the coronavirus will be staggering. NFL Players Association officials reportedly told player agents last month that the league could lose about $3 billion in revenue if teams play in empty stadiums in 2020. And where the NFL’s money goes, its salary cap will follow.

The Ravens’ challenge next offseason won’t be unique, even if the circumstances will be: Make the most of their resources. Spend wisely. Build the best team possible.

“To me, that’s like golf,” coach John Harbaugh said in a conference call last month. “You play the shots as they’re presented. The more shots you hit in the middle of the fairway, the cleaner the shots are going forward.”

Of course, if a pandemic is going to turn salary cap management into the NFL’s version of a windy weekend at Augusta National Golf Club, it helps to play from the set of tees closest to the hole. And the Ravens, even after spending liberally this offseason, are well positioned for a potentially historic 2021.

The NFL’s salary cap has grown by at least $10 million every year since 2013. With a higher revenue share for players in the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, a massive spike was expected next year. Now, with stadium revenue streams likely to be decimated this year, the league’s $198.2 million cap could fall for the first time since 2011. A flat cap for next year is also possible, but only by borrowing against future revenue.

The Ravens cannot keep their hands in their pockets. All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley is entering the last year of his rookie contract. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon, barring a contract extension, will play this season on the franchise tag. Certain positions will have to be addressed.

But a review of the Ravens’ 2021 cap picture bears out Harbaugh’s optimism about the team’s near future. General manager Eric DeCosta has assembled a roster with both high-value, low-cost assets and expendable big-money contracts. A strong, relatively cheap core is already in place. Wherever the salary cap lands, the Ravens shouldn’t need a teardown to accommodate it.

“We have not been in good cap shape for the last six, seven years,” Harbaugh said. “Every year, we’ve been behind the eight ball with the cap, and that’s just the way it was. This year was a little better. Next year will be a lot better. With that, we’ll have to sign guys, but we’ll have money, too. I’m very optimistic that Eric and his crew will just do an amazing job of figuring out the numbers.”

According to data from Spotrac and Over The Cap, here’s where the team stands at each position. The figures below reflect the CBA rule that only a team’s 51 highest cap hits, as well as all prorated bonuses, determine its salary cap calculation. The Ravens are expected to have about $7 million in space this year after signing the final three members of their rookie class. They currently have 61 players under contract through at least 2021, 21 of whom are undrafted rookies.

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Quarterback

2020 cap hit: $5.1 million

2021 outlook: $4.7 million

The NFL’s best asset is an elite quarterback on a rookie deal, but the Ravens are going to have to pay Lamar Jackson eventually. The team will almost assuredly exercise his fifth-year option next offseason, extending its exclusive negotiating window through 2022.

A megadeal could come as soon as next year, when Jackson is eligible for a contract extension. Some top quarterbacks, though, have needed a little longer. The Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson are both set to enter their fourth NFL season without a new contract, perhaps partly due to pandemic-induced uncertainty.

If the Ravens and Jackson don’t agree to an extension, backup Robert Griffin III becomes the position’s biggest variable. The 30-year-old is set to become a free agent next year, and he’s made clear his desire to start again. But if the Ravens don’t view Trace McSorley or Tyler Huntley as backup-quality quarterbacks, Griffin would likely have the option of returning to Baltimore, where his cap hit this year is $2.5 million.

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Running back

2020 cap hit: $7.2 million

2021 outlook: $8.7 million

The Ravens will have some tough calls here. Starter Mark Ingram II’s cap hit in 2021, the final season of his three-year contract, is $6.3 million. But the Ravens would absorb just $1.3 million in dead money if they parted ways after 2020. Ingram turns 31 in December and has the fifth-most career carries among active NFL players. Second-round pick J.K. Dobbins could be a ready-made replacement.

Gus Edwards, meanwhile, will be a restricted free agent after this season, meaning he’s not accounted for in the 2021 outlook. Given Edwards’ expected workload this year and the value of draft picks, it’s unlikely any team would place a second-round tender on him. If the cap doesn’t increase next year, an original-round tender could again be worth about $2 million — a well-deserved pay bump for one of the NFL’s most efficient runners.

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Wide receiver

2020 cap hit: $12.4 million

2021 outlook: $7.1 million

With a $5.4 million cap hit, Willie Snead IV will be the third-highest-paid player on the Ravens offense this season. He and special teams standout Chris Moore are free agents after this season, meaning the team could enter 2021 with a wide receiver corps composed entirely of players on their rookie deals: Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Miles Boykin, Devin Duvernay and James Proche, among others.

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Tight end/fullback

2020 cap hit: $10.8 million

2021 outlook: $14.5 million

After signing a contract extension last offseason, tight end Nick Boyle will have one of the Ravens’ bigger cap hits over the next two years. He’s owed $6.8 million in 2020 and $7.8 million in 2021, the last year of his contract.

In the team’s run-heavy offense, Boyle is as irreplaceable as leading receiver Mark Andrews, who’s eligible for a contract extension after this season and will make $1.1 million in 2021, the last year of his rookie deal.

Fullback Patrick Ricard is also likely to play out the entirety of his contract extension, although an offseason restructuring reduced his 2020 cap hit ($3 million) and elevated it in 2021 ($4 million).

Undrafted rookie tight ends Eli Wolf and Jacob Breeland are both currently among the Ravens’ top 51 contracts signed through 2021, but only one is likely to make the team this year.

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Offensive line

2020 cap hit: $20.7 million

2021 outlook: $8.2 million

Stanley is in line to become one of the NFL’s highest-paid offensive linemen ever. But will it be in Baltimore, or elsewhere? And when will a long-term deal arrive?

The Ravens have some control over Stanley’s near future. They’re paying the left tackle $12.9 million this season and could designate him with the franchise tag before he hits free agency next year. Given the lucrative recent deals for the Houston Texans’ Laremy Tunsil ($22 million annually), Philadelphia Eagles’ Lane Johnson ($18 million), Indianapolis Colts’ Anthony Castonzo ($16.5 million) and Oakland Raiders’ Trent Brown ($16.5 million), the cost of tagging an offensive lineman will rise well above the 2019 mark ($14.8 million).

Stanley’s not the only starter who might need replacing. Center Matt Skura, coming off a season-ending knee injury, is a pending unrestricted free agent. If he returns to his 2019 form, he could be in line to make over $8 million annually, as nearly half of the league’s starting centers do.

Guard D.J. Fluker, meanwhile, will be on the market again in 2021, while right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and left guard Bradley Bozeman will be eligible for contract extensions.

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Defensive line

2020 cap hit: $29.8 million

2021 outlook: $32.3 million

The Ravens are paying big money to two big linemen over the next two years: a combined $28.6 million to tackle Brandon Williams and a combined $25 million to end Calais Campbell.

Both are expected to be defensive linchpins in 2020. Neither is young. Campbell, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, turns 34 in September. But it’s the 31-year-old Williams who has a less certain future in Baltimore.

The Ravens would save $9.5 million in cap space and incur $4.9 million in dead money if they released Williams next offseason. Despite Campbell’s similar 2021 cap hit, his contract guarantees $5 million of his $10 million base salary next year. Parting ways would create just $5 million in savings along with $10 million in dead money.

Elsewhere on the line are several players angling for new contracts. Ends Derek Wolfe and Jihad Ward are on one-year deals this season. So is tackle Justin Ellis.

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Inside linebacker

2020 cap hit: $6.3 million

2021 outlook: $8.4 million

The Ravens are built for the future here. Other than returning starter L.J. Fort, every inside linebacker on the roster is on a rookie contract through at least 2021. The top earners are Fort, who’s owed $2.5 million this season and $3 million in 2021, and unsigned first-round pick Patrick Queen, whose first two years are expected to be comparable in value.

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Outside linebacker

2020 cap hit: $20.4 million

2021 outlook: $2.6 million

This is where the Ravens’ decision to not draft an edge rusher this year could cost them. Judon is likely to play the season under the tag. Tyus Bowser is in the final year of his rookie contract. Pernell McPhee is on a one-year deal. Among the team’s draft picks, only Jaylon Ferguson is signed through at least 2021.

If Judon and the Ravens can’t agree to an extension by July 15, he could drive up his free-agent price tag with another strong season. A second franchise tag tender, even with a flat cap, is unlikely. The Ravens would owe Judon either a 20% raise of his $16.8 million salary ($20.2 million) or the average of the position’s top five salaries, whichever is higher.

And if Bowser builds on his five-sack 2019 season, a solid market could develop for the former second-round pick, as it has for so many Ravens outside linebackers who shined in their fourth year.

Fortunately for the Ravens, a glut of established edge rushers hitting the market in 2021 should keep prices down somewhat. Jadeveon Clowney hasn’t found an attractive enough long-term offer. Markus Golden is still available. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Yannick Ngakoue (Maryland), Pittsburgh Steelers’ Bud Dupree and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Shaquil Barrett will likely all play this season under the franchise tag. And the Denver Broncos could let Von Miller reach free agency.

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Cornerback

2020 cap hit: $32.0 million

2021 outlook: $35.4 million

The Ravens’ most consistent investment under DeCosta has been in their secondary. At cornerback, All-Pro Marcus Peters and Tavon Young are both signed through 2022, while All-Pro Marlon Humphrey’s fifth-year option would take him through 2021. Anthony Averett and Iman Marshall are also at least two seasons away from the end of their rookie deals.

Expect stability at the position. Because of a now fully guaranteed 2021 base salary ($11.5 million), the Ravens are likely wedded to Peters for at least the next two years. To cut Young after this season, they would have to take on $5 million in dead money for just $3 million in cap space.

Jimmy Smith, whose 2020 cap hit is $3.5 million, is the unit’s only pending free agent.

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Safety

2020 cap hit: $20.4 million

2021 outlook: $21.6 million

After Earl Thomas III’s scary offseason incident, his future in Baltimore will be scrutinized, fairly or unfairly.

Thomas was named to the Pro Bowl last season, when he played on just a $2 million base salary. From 2020 to 2022, though, that figure rises to $10 million, $11 million and $12 million, respectively. The Ravens would face a $10 million dead-money charge if they cut him after this season and save just $6 million in cap space.

The other players at the position are on more manageable contracts. Fellow starter Chuck Clark won’t have a $4 million-plus cap hit until 2022. DeShon Elliott and Geno Stone are both signed through at least 2021. Special teams standouts Anthony Levine Sr. and Jordan Richards are on one-year deals.

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Specialists

2020 cap hit: $8.5 million

2021 outlook: $8 million

Assuming the Ravens’ “Wolfpack” stays healthy and productive, the only looming question here is what kind of deal Pro Bowl long snapper Morgan Cox, a pending free agent, gets — and when. Ahead of the 2016 season, he signed a five-year, $5.6 million contract extension.

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Overview

When the projected cap figures of the Ravens’ unsigned draft picks are accounted for, the team’s current cap hit for next year is about $151 million. If the front office don’t spend another dollar this season, approximately $7 million in 2020 cap space would roll over to next year’s books.

However the Ravens proceed, they should have two important assets as the 2021 league year approaches: a mostly proven roster and financial flexibility. If the salary cap remains around $200 million, the team could spend $40 million next offseason — a market-setting deal for Stanley? An early extension for Andrews? New pieces at outside linebacker? — and still have some wiggle room.

And if the Ravens start to feel the squeeze, whether it’s because of a reduced salary cap or escalating contract demands, they’d have escape routes. Releasing Williams and Ingram, for instance, would create $14.5 million in cap space and $6.2 million in dead money. The front office could also restructure contracts, converting part of a player’s 2021 salary into a prorated bonus more easily dispersed over a long contract.

Those decisions are still months away. The course of the NFL’s 2020 season will shape the Ravens’ options in 2021. But it’s clear a pandemic won’t mark the end of the team’s championship window.

“We’ll keep the guys we can, and the guys that we can’t, we’ll replace,” Harbaugh said last month. “We’ll keep building what we’re doing here.”

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©2020 The Baltimore Sun
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