Cap has Ravens passing the buck Seek recast contracts to free up rookie money

June 01, 1996|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Three months before they face their first opponent, the Baltimore Ravens are scrambling to overcome a year-round nemesis throughout the National Football League -- the salary cap.

Baltimore's mission is clear. Make enough room under the league's 1996 salary cap of $40.73 million to sign its seven draft picks, especially top pick Jonathan Ogden and fellow first-round choice Ray Lewis.

The mission also is daunting. At present, the Ravens are $683,000 under the salary cap, but they have been allotted about $3.3 million with which to sign their rookies. The rookie pool amounts, which range this year from $1.2 million to $4.3 million, are based on how many players each team drafts, and where those players were positioned.

In short, the Ravens must trim about $2.7 million from their scheduled 1996 payroll to remain under the cap.

How will they do it? By reworking contracts and/or releasing some players. Team officials are studying both approaches, and are leaning more toward redoing deals to create room under the cap.

"We're going to ask certain veterans to take a reduction [for 1996], and it depends on how they and their agents respond. We prefer restructuring over release," team owner Art Modell said. "As far as how many will be restructured, it could be as few as two or three, or as many as six or seven. We just don't know yet."

The Ravens already are trying to rework 10-year cornerback Don Griffin's contract. Griffin earned $1.3 million last year.

"You expose your whole roster to this," said Ozzie Newsome, Baltimore's director of football operations. "Every move you make affects the next thing you do. It's not out of the realm that we'll release some guys. We'll utilize all of the avenues to get under the cap. We have to get our draft choices signed."

The Ravens, who remained under last year's cap by reworking the contracts of quarterback Vinny Testaverde and offensive tackle Tony Jones, are not alone in this dilemma. The league's 30 teams need to chop about $25 million off their combined payroll before training camp opens in July.

The real race to cut payroll begins today, when teams are expected to begin putting selected veterans on waivers for the purpose of releasing them. Players who clear waivers become unrestricted free agents who can negotiate with any team. Some players will return to their former club at a cheaper 1996 rate.

Why wait until June 1? Strictly for salary cap reasons.

A team's payroll is based on total salary and bonus allotment in a given year. According to the league's collective bargaining agreement, if a team waits until after June 1 to release a player, only the bonus he was scheduled to receive this year will be counted against the 1996 cap. The player's future bonuses would be applied, or "accelerated," to next year's cap.

If a player is released before June 1, all of that player's remaining, or "unamortized," bonuses, would be charged to the current year's cap.

While trying to navigate around the cap, general managers and players alike have discovered that signing bonuses are their mutual best friend. First, that money is guaranteed. Second, it is prorated over the life on the contract in salary cap terms.

For example, when the Cleveland Browns signed wide receiver Andre Rison last year, the five-year deal included a $5 million signing bonus. Rison received the entire bonus up front even though the cap cost to the Ravens is actually $1 million per season.

Signing Ogden, the fourth pick overall, will be similarly expensive. Newsome said Ogden could receive a signing bonus in the $6 million range.

"If we sign him for six years under that figure, the cost of that bonus to us will be $1 million per year, and Jon Ogden still ends up with $6 million in his pocket," Newsome said.

Restructuring a deal usually involves deferring higher salaries to later years. But it does not always mean a player takes a short-term pay cut. As Pat Moriarty, the Ravens' director of business operations, said, a veteran can offset a salary reduction for the coming season with a signing bonus large enough to cover the difference.

"You can cut someone's salary in half, but by extending the contract and including a large signing bonus, it's really not a pay reduction," said Moriarty, who is handling most of the team's contract negotiations.

The Ravens are not expected to make any roster moves this weekend. Moriarty said they will pursue the restructuring of contracts, while keeping a close eye on the waiver wire. And if the Ravens spot a desirable free agent (Newsome said they would like to sign one or two -- probably a running back, linebacker or tight end), that could create another cap problem.

"There's a real domino effect to this. We're going to see some shuffling, since all teams out there are negotiating with their rookies," said Moriarty.

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