Take one look at the Ravens roster and it’s no secret why they went 14-2 in 2019 and appear to be in good shape for the foreseeable future.
Simply put, the team has collected high-end players through the draft in recent years.
Baltimore drafted 2019 All-Pro selections Ronnie Stanley, Marlon Humphrey and Lamar Jackson with first-round picks in consecutive years from 2016-2018. During that three-year period, the Ravens also drafted linebacker Matthew Judon (2016), who put together a career-best season last year; safety Chuck Clark (2017), who became one of the team’s starting safeties last fall, as well as tight end Mark Andrews and offensive linemen Bradley Bozeman and Orlando Brown Jr. (2018).
“It’s everyone being on the same page,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said of what has led to the Ravens’ recent success in the draft. “Not only have they had stability from a personnel department standpoint, but also the coaching staff now. John Harbaugh’s been there a long time. Just like all great organizations, it really feels like there’s synergy between the coaching and scouting in Baltimore.”
In the coming months, the Ravens will presumably work to sign recent draftees to long-term deals that fit into the team’s future plans. The team has already signed Clark to a three-year extension that ties him to Baltimore through 2023 and guarantees him $10 million. Humphrey and Stanley are eligible for extensions, and Andrews, Bozeman, Brown and Jackson are eligible for deals after the 2020 season.
Judon signed a one-year franchise tender for $16.8 million in May, but he and the Ravens didn’t come to a long-term deal ahead of the July 15 deadline on extensions for franchise-tagged players. Stanley is playing on the fifth-year option that the Ravens exercised as part of his rookie deal and could be a franchise-tag candidate in 2021. Baltimore picked up the fifth-year option on Humphrey for 2021. The 2018 draftees are signed through 2021, though the Ravens can eventually pick up a fifth-year option on Jackson for 2022.
“I understand that it’s a business and that they’ve kind of got a bad-good’ problem to have,” Judon said this summer regarding potential extensions for key players. “We have a lot of young talent, and unfortunately, we can’t all stay on the rookie deal our whole careers.”
Former Washington (1989-1999) and Houston Texans (2002-2005) general manager Charley Casserly said his teams would plan out budgets three years in advance when assessing where they might allocate resources in the future.
“It’s hard to predict two years, let alone three years about how players are going to develop, but we would plan it out to have that there,” said Casserly, now an NFL Network analyst. “And obviously it’s in pencil because it’s going to change. Players develop and some guys mature and play better than you think, and some guys don’t. You have to adjust.”
Several Ravens will command significant long-term money in their next deal if they continue on their current paths, including:
• Andrews, 24, who caught 64 passes for 854 yards and 10 touchdowns as Jackson’s go-to target in 2019;
• Humphrey, 24, who had three interceptions last year and has turned into one of the top cover corners in football;
• Jackson, 23, who earned unanimous MVP honors after throwing for 36 touchdowns and running for 1,206 yards, a league record for a quarterback;
• Judon, 28, who had a team-high 9.5 sacks and 33 quarterback hits last year and helps against the run as well;
• And Stanley, 26, who has developed into one of the premier tackles in football and protects Jackson’s blind side.
Jackson will require the biggest chunk of change. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes signed a 10-year extension in July worth up to $503 million, but overthecap.com founder Jason Fitzgerald said to pay closer attention to the contract that Houston eventually gives quarterback Deshaun Watson when looking for a comparable deal for Jackson. Watson, currently signed through 2021, is eligible for an extension. Fitzgerald believes Watson, 24, will seek a shorter-term deal than Mahomes worth more than $40 million per year.
“I think that’s probably the one that most people are going to have eyes on,” Fitzgerald said. “The Mahomes deal is kind of a tough one. It’s so long term, the 10-year aspect of it.”
Comps for deals already exist at other positions. Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil signed a three-year, $66 million deal in April. Tunsil’s average annual value of $22 million blew the left tackle market out of the water, but Fitzgerald expects the Ravens will have to get to $20 million per year — or come close to it — in order to sign Stanley long term.
Darius Slay (three years, $50.05 million with the Philadelphia Eagles) and Byron Jones (five years, $82.5 million with the Miami Dolphins) reset the cornerback market in March. Fitzgerald believes Humphrey will eventually sign for more than $16 million per year, much like Slay and Jones.
San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (five years, $75 million) and Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (four years, $57.25 million) signed new deals in August. Fitzgerald figures Andrews will eventually come in a tier below Kittle and Kelce at $13 million or $13.5 million per year.
Former Ravens linebacker Za’Darius Smith signed a four-year, $66 million deal with the Green Bay Packers in free agency in March 2019, and Smith was similarly productive in the fourth year of his career (8.5 sacks) as Judon. But Judon’s $16.8 million tag number already exceeds Smith’s average-annual-value mark ($16.5 million), meaning the baseline for a new deal for Judon is higher than the deal Smith signed in 2019.
And there are almost certainly more players Baltimore would like to keep around. So how do the Ravens fit everyone into the salary cap long term?
“You’re not going to get them all locked up,” Casserly said. “… You have a lot of real good players. You’re not going to be able to keep everybody.”
Fitzgerald offered three things in particular for teams to keep in mind regarding extensions and managing the cap:
• Get extensions done early when possible, as the Ravens did with Clark. “If you do them when they have the one or the two years left on their deal if we’re talking about a first-round pick, it just gives you a lot more flexibility in the way that you can kind of structure the cap hits on the deals,” Fitzgerald said.
• Be realistic about how productive players will be in the future instead of hoping for the best possible outcomes, like when the Los Angeles Rams “took a very rosy approach with Brandin Cooks,” according to Fitzgerald. “They obviously took a real bullish approach on Todd Gurley, a couple other players there as well.”
• Understand what the team’s needs may be two to three years down the road. “What are positions you think you can draft and replace versus having to re-sign guys or go into free agency and sign them?” Fitzgerald said.
The wild card all teams are dealing with is the uncertainty of how future salary caps will be affected by the coronavirus pandemic, which is expected to result in a substantial loss of revenue for teams because of fewer fans in the stands. The NFL and NFLPA agreed on a $198.2 million salary cap in 2020 and to spread out this season’s revenue losses from 2021-2024. The 2021 cap will be no lower than $175 million.
“All you can do is take your estimates and work from there,” Casserly said regarding future caps. “But if you have a great player, you’re going to try to sign him — George Kittle, Patrick Mahomes — because that guy is your team. You’ve got to have him.”
The Ravens surely hope their 2019 and 2020 drafts — led by general manager Eric DeCosta, who took over for Ozzie Newsome after the 2018 season — produce stars like their drafts from 2016-2018 did. Receiver Marquise Brown (46 catches, 584 yards, seven touchdowns) provided solid early returns in 2019, and linebacker Patrick Queen is among those looking to do the same in 2020.
“I think everyone in Baltimore knew Eric being GM was the future after Ozzie,” said Nagy, the Senior Bowl executive director. “It made for a seamless transition. It’s a cohesive group, and there’s great chemistry on that scouting staff. It just shows.”
Photo Credits: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Originally published Sept. 2, 2020