Pondering Ravens’ potential 2022 salary cap cuts

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Change is inevitable in the NFL with the Ravens being no exception to the rule.

The optimist views the disappointing 2021 team as one with Super Bowl potential that was derailed by a litany of injuries, but there’s no such thing as simply maintaining the status quo and expecting better health in 2022. According to OverTheCap.com, the Ravens currently have just under $10 million in salary cap space, but that’s before even re-signing exclusive-rights and restricted free agents and accounting for the upcoming 2022 draft class.

In other words, general manager Eric DeCosta will have difficult roster decisions to make to create more flexibility. And while contract extensions — especially one for star quarterback Lamar Jackson and his scheduled $23.105 million salary for 2022 — and restructures can clear significant cap space, there’s an inevitability of the Ravens bidding farewell to some veterans currently under contract.

In evaluating potential cuts, it’s important to remember the rule of 51 as the top 51 cap numbers on the roster count against the salary cap. The savings from any released player is offset in part by an additional player moving into the top 51 from the bottom of the list. For example, if a released player carrying a $3 million cap number is replaced in the top 51 by another player carrying a $700,000 cap number, the end result is a $2.3 million savings on the salary cap.

Below is a list of candidates who could be released or waived for salary cap purposes (ranked by the most pre-June 1 cap savings to the least):

CB Marcus Peters ($10 million)
Skinny: Losing the man who had the most interceptions in the NFL since 2015 just days before the season opener was a critical hit for a defense that plummeted to last against the pass and 30th in takeaways in 2021, making it seem crazy from a football standpoint to even consider releasing Peters. Knowing how much the defense missed his playmaking ability, leadership, and toughness this past season, a contract extension to lower his $10 million base salary would make some sense, but the Ravens must also acknowledge the 29-year-old is coming off a serious knee injury and didn’t play as well in 2020 as he did in his first year with Baltimore, factors making one take pause about committing to Peters beyond 2022. Given the current state of their secondary, however, you’d expect the Ravens to keep the three-time Pro Bowl cornerback in the fold, but the status of his recovery is good reason to try to stand pat with his deal and look elsewhere to create some cap space.

OT Alejandro Villanueva ($6 million)
Skinny: In a perfect world, the Ravens would have had a healthy Ronnie Stanley at left tackle and Orlando Brown Jr. still manning right tackle in 2021, but the former still wasn’t right after multiple ankle surgeries and the latter asked for a trade that ultimately landed him in Kansas City before the draft. Villanueva’s two-year, $14 million contract signed in May seemed a little pricey relative to what the perceived market interest was for the former Pittsburgh Steeler, but we’ll never know whether the 33-year-old would have eventually settled in and played a solid right tackle after his poor Week 1 performance. Instead, Stanley was done for the season after that overtime loss to Las Vegas, and Villanueva moved back to the blindside where Pro Football Focus graded him 54th out of 83 qualified offensive tackles. The Ravens have too many “maybes” and “ifs” at offensive tackle for comfort, but moving on from Villanueva seems like the best bet on this list when factoring in $6 million in savings and his underwhelming play in 2021.

CB Tavon Young ($5.845 million)
Skinny: Amidst the many losses in the secondary, the 27-year-old slot corner appeared in every game for the first time since his rookie year and played admirably after missing essentially three of the previous four seasons because of knee and neck injuries. At the same time, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Young had to push through some nagging ailments along the way and has too much of an injury history to not consider hedging bets on another healthy campaign. The current state of the secondary and the Ravens’ long-term belief in Young’s upside would seem to work in his favor for sticking around in 2022, but committing to him beyond the coming season would be risky.

OT Ja’Wuan James ($3 million)
Skinny: The two-year contract signed last June was always about 2022, but subdued optimism surrounding his December return to the practice field felt a little off, making you question if the sides were on the same page about his recovery from a torn Achilles tendon suffered last spring. Unless his rehabilitation hasn’t gone to plan, you’d at least expect James to be in the mix for a roster spot and possibly the right tackle job this summer, but we’re also talking about an oft-injured offensive lineman who’s played a total of three games since the conclusion of the 2018 season and none since 2019. Expectations should be tempered, but $3 million isn’t all that prohibitive for a 29-year-old tackle with 65 career starts under his belt.

WR Miles Boykin ($2.54 million)
Skinny: The proven performance escalator is in place to reward non-first-round draft picks who end up playing more than the expectation for their original draft status, but it may price the 2019 third-round pick out of Baltimore after an injury-plagued 2021 in which he fell behind other young receivers on the depth chart. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Notre Dame product still averaged 18 special-teams plays per game in eight contests, but Boykin’s 35 total offensive snaps illustrated how far he’s fallen in the receiver pecking order and how much his roster standing could be in jeopardy without an adjustment to his $2.754 million cap number for the final year of his rookie contract.

G Ben Powers ($2.54 million)
Skinny: Powers falls into the same category as Boykin in terms of an increased 2022 salary, but the difference is how much the 2019 fourth-round pick played this past season as he started a career-high 12 games before a foot injury cost him the final four contests. Most will point to 2021 third-round pick Ben Cleveland as the better bet to play left guard next season, but the position is hardly settled and Powers’ scheduled salary isn’t unreasonable for a backup if he can show more versatility. What the Ravens do with their offensive line in the coming weeks will go a long way in determining whether Powers fits into their plans, but they probably shouldn’t be in a major rush to move on from the 6-foot-4, 310-pound guard just yet. According to PFF, he graded 44th among 83 qualified guards during the 2021 season.

P Sam Koch ($2.1 million)
Skinny: The longest-tenured Raven will turn 40 in August and is entering the final year of his contract, making it natural to wonder how much longer he’ll be playing after 16 years in Baltimore. Koch’s $3.15 million cap number is among the highest for punters, but his $2.1 million salary ranks a reasonable 10th in cash spent for punters in 2022, according to OverTheCap.com. Yes, the Ravens made a seamless transition going from veteran long snapper Morgan Cox to Nick Moore in 2021, but Koch has long been regarded as a brilliant holder, another factor in the kicking game to consider before any thoughts of moving on.