Ravens’ roster construction remains in “haze” as new league year approaches

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Asked on Twitter last month whether he’d tried to recruit any upcoming free agents to Baltimore at the Pro Bowl, cornerback Marlon Humphrey offered a glimpse into the Ravens’ current reality.

Yes, everyone wants to know whether the Ravens are going to re-sign franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson, and general manager Eric DeCosta understands that unknown threatens to hijack the entire offseason. With Tuesday’s franchise tag deadline looming and Baltimore needing to make adjustments to fit even the non-exclusive $32.4 million price under the salary cap, discussing any outside free agents feels like an effort in vain at the moment. 

According to OverTheCap.com, the Ravens currently have just over $24 million in cap space without accounting for Jackson in any form. 

“It does kind of create a little bit of a haze as to what the future’s going to look like with your roster,” DeCosta said at the scouting combine in Indianapolis this week. “There are some things that we’re not going to do right now that maybe we would try to do. But there’s no bigger question right now and no bigger decision. There’s no bigger challenge for this organization moving forward than this contract. All of my effort — well, most of my effort — is focused on this.” 

That haze includes the status of several Ravens veterans, who either are scheduled to hit free agency later this month or carry a high cap number for 2023. Not including Jackson, Baltimore’s list of unrestricted free agents is headlined by three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters, a respected and popular member of the defense since being acquired midway through the 2019 season. 

Returning from a torn ACL sustained days before the 2021 opener, the 30-year-old Peters started 13 games and played better as 2022 progressed before a calf injury sidelined him for the final three games of the regular season. His age and a career-low one interception make him a better candidate for a short-term contract, but that isn’t exactly ideal for a team low on cap space. 

Whether Peters returns or not, cornerback is a position needing to be address this offseason.  

“He’s a guy that I hold in very, very high regard,” DeCosta said. “I’ve had a few conversations with Marcus’ agent [Doug Hendrickson], who is a good friend, and Marcus is a great friend. He and I have communicated. That will be ongoing, but that’s a guy that when you talk about true Ravens, guys who have done a lot for your team, for me, for the Ravens over the past four years, Marcus is on that list.”

DeCosta offered similar sentiments about free agent Justin Houston, who led the team with 9 1/2 sacks and 17 quarterback hits in his second season with Baltimore. According to Pro Football Focus, Houston’s 18.4% pass-rush win rate and 14.6% pressure percentage both ranked in the top 25 among edge defenders, illustrating how shrewd the Ravens were to sign him to a one-year, $3.5 million contract. 

The 34-year-old didn’t re-sign with Baltimore for 2022 until early July and was an August addition the season before that, a pattern DeCosta expects to continue if Houston is to remain a Raven. Of course, the four-time Pro Bowl edge rusher registering his highest single-season sack total since 2019 may spark earlier interest from other teams despite his advancing age. 

“Last year, we signed him when I was at the beach — literally on the beach throwing a football with my son, Jackson,” DeCosta said. “I got the call from [agent] Joel Segal, and the deal was done. I think you can expect the same if we go down that road.”

Pending free agents aren’t the only veterans facing uncertainty with the Ravens managing a tight salary cap. Defensive end Calais Campbell announced his intentions to return for a 16th NFL season a few weeks ago and remains under contract for 2023, but the six-time Pro Bowl defensive end will turn 37 in September and is scheduled to carry a $9.44 million cap figure with $7 million in new money. 

Campbell remains a very good player you’d prefer to have in the trenches for another season, but Baltimore will likely want to address that cap number by way of a modest extension, a pay cut, or potentially even a release. Parting ways with the 6-foot-8, 307-pound defensive lineman and locker room leader wouldn’t be easy, but it would create $7 million in cap savings.  

For what it’s worth, DeCosta was noncommittal when asked about Campbell’s status, eventually calling back to his first offseason as general manager in 2019 when he ultimately moved on from a list of standout performers that included outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, and safety Eric Weddle. 

“I almost got run out of town before I was even the GM basically,” DeCosta said. “Those were hard decisions. And so every season that new league year opens up, you know that you’re going to take on some water and you’re going to have to make some tough choices about the team because we’re not just trying to win this year. We’re trying to win four years from now as well.”

Of course, such decisions are a two-way street, and how the Jackson negotiations play out may impact how much the aforementioned veterans — and others — will want to return to the Ravens themselves. 

To say it’s created “a little bit of a haze” is putting it mildly.

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