Sizing up Ravens’ 2021 class of free agents

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The start of free agency is just seven weeks away with the Ravens coming off their third straight trip to the playoffs and aiming to advance beyond the divisional round where their season has concluded each of the last two years.

Baltimore currently has an estimated 2021 “Rule of 51” salary cap commitment of just over $150 million and close to $12 million in dead cap money, according to OverTheCap.com. The 2021 salary cap has not been officially set — it was $198.2 million this past season — but after years of annual increases of at least $10 million, the cap could fall to as low as $175 million due to lost revenue stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. In other words, the Ravens aren’t going to have nearly as much cap flexibility as they would have expected a year ago.

General manager Eric DeCosta is likely to create more cap flexibility by extending, reworking, or even terminating the contracts of select veteran players. That last option is exactly what the Ravens did last week with former Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram, who was released to create $5 million in cap space.

Below is a look at Baltimore’s 2021 class of free agents:

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

The Ravens will have the opportunity to extend any of the following unrestricted free agents before they may officially sign with any team beginning March 17 at 4 p.m.

OLB Tyus Bowser The 2017 second-round pick set career highs in snaps, tackles, quarterbacks hits, interceptions, and pass breakups and could be a cheaper alternative among the young Baltimore edge rushers hitting the market.

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WR Dez Bryant The former Dallas Cowboy caught two touchdowns, but he didn’t register a catch after Week 16 and just wasn’t much of a factor for a passing game that clearly needs more juice for 2021.

LS Morgan Cox DeCosta has already confirmed the 34-year-old won’t return after 11 years with the Ravens, but understudy Nick Moore spent the entire season on the practice squad and appears capable of handling the job.

DT Justin Ellis The 30-year-old veteran saw extensive action in the place of an injured Brandon Williams in November, but adding youth should be a priority with Williams turning 32 and entering the final year of his contract.

OL D.J. Fluker – The former first-round pick saw extensive action after the season-ending injury to Ronnie Stanley and provides versatile depth, but adding a younger reserve offensive tackle with more upside should be a priority.

OLB Matthew Judon – The two-time Pro Bowl selection is a well-rounded defender, but using the franchise tag again isn’t a viable option and reports persist of Judon seeking $20 million per year, leaving his future with Baltimore in doubt.

DB Anthony Levine – A longtime special-teams captain and former dime back, Levine will soon turn 34, played only 30 defensive snaps (his lowest total since 2015), and battled an abdominal strain for much of the season.

OLB Pernell McPhee The 32-year-old played some of his best football late in the season and missed only one game, making him an appealing short-term option to re-sign with so many Baltimore outside linebackers hitting the market.

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WR Chris Moore Injuries limited Moore to just three games in the regular season, but his abilities on special teams likely keep the door open for a return on a cheap contract.

OLB Yannick Ngakoue – The former Terp flashed his pass-rushing ability, but three sacks in 11 total games can’t be what DeCosta had in mind when he traded a 2021 third-round pick for Ngakoue, who should still command a lucrative contract.

S Jordan Richards The 28-year-old special-teams contributor appeared in every game for the Ravens, but he doesn’t offer much in terms of defensive depth, hurting his overall value.

C Matt Skura – The former starting center has made 51 starts over an NFL career that began as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and seems like a good bet to get a chance to start somewhere else.

WR Willie Snead – A valued veteran and solid contributor for a young offense, Snead’s status could largely depend on how much urgency the Ravens feel to add an established high-end wide receiver this offseason.

TE Eric Tomlinson – The 28-year-old is a good blocker, but adding a more dynamic No. 3 option behind Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle — both free agents after 2021 — should be a goal for an offense described as “tight end-centric” by DeCosta.

OLB Jihad Ward – Initially the odd man out after the Ngakoue trade, Ward returned to the rotation down the stretch and played well enough to be in the conversation for a return with Judon, Ngakoue, and Bowser likely to be more expensive.

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WR DeAndrew White – The 29-year-old landed on injured reserve less than a week after being signed in late August, making his return unlikely.

DL Derek Wolfe – Coaches and teammates praised Wolfe’s play and leadership, but Williams and Calais Campbell already account for nearly $30 million on the 2021 cap, meaning the Ravens may need to get creative to retain the 30-year-old.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

The following players have accrued three years of service and have expiring contracts. The Ravens can tender each with a restricted free agent offer, but other teams may then sign that player to an offer sheet. If that occurs, Baltimore has the right to match the offer and keep the aforementioned player. If the Ravens elect not to match, they would receive compensation based on which restricted tender they offered that player.

There are three different tenders — the values won’t be set until the 2021 salary cap is finalized — that can be made: a first-round tender ($4.641 million in 2020) would award the competing team’s first-round selection, a second-round tender ($3.259 million in 2020) would fetch the competing team’s second-round pick, and a low tender ($2.133 million in 2020) would bring the competing team’s draft choice equal to the round in which the player was originally drafted. For example, a restricted free agent selected in the fifth round would be worth a fifth-round pick if given the low tender. If a player went undrafted originally and is given the low tender, the Ravens would only hold the right to match the competing offer sheet and would not receive any draft compensation if they chose not to.

With less-heralded restricted free agents, the Ravens often elect to forgo a tender and will attempt to re-sign them at cheaper rates.

The original round in which each player was drafted is noted in parentheses:

ILB Chris Board (undrafted) – The North Dakota State product saw the most playing time of his career in sub packages in the second half of the season, but re-signing Board at a cheaper rate than the low tender is more likely.

RB Gus Edwards (undrafted) – Rushing for over 700 yards and more than 5.0 yards per carry for the third straight season, Edwards isn’t going anywhere and figures to receive a second-round tender to keep other teams from pursuing him.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

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These players have less than three years of accrued service and can be tendered a contract for the league minimum based on their length of service in the league. If tendered, these players are not free to negotiate with other teams. The Ravens usually tender all exclusive-rights free agents with the idea that there’s nothing promised beyond the opportunity to compete for a spot. Exclusive-rights tenders are not guaranteed, meaning a player can be cut at any point without consequence to the salary cap.

C Trystan Colon-Castillo The undrafted rookie from Missouri could be in contention with Patrick Mekari to start at center if the Ravens don’t upgrade the position via the draft or free agency.

CB Khalil Dorsey Appearing in six games as a rookie, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound corner is a developmental nickel option and will compete for a spot on the 53-man roster.

P Johnny Townsend The replacement when Sam Koch was placed on the COVID-19 list in late December, Townsend would benefit from getting to work with Koch and Justin Tucker in the spring and summer.

ILB Kristian Welch Seeing only eight defensive snaps as a rookie, the Iowa product was a regular on special teams and will compete for a roster spot this summer.

WR Antoine Wesley After spending the 2019 season on Baltimore’s practice squad, the 6-foot-4 Wesley missed all of 2020 with a shoulder injury and will probably get another chance to compete during training camp.

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