Defense sees writing on wall

Cap all but assures unit's breakup, so extra pressure felt

Ravens / Steelers - Afc Divisional Playoff

January 20, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH - For one of the NFL's greatest defenses, the last stand is now.

The Ravens are another playoff tear away from a defensive legacy. They are another loss away from likely getting torn apart.

The NFL's great equalizer - the salary cap - is expected to strike hard and swiftly by season's end, forcing the Ravens to part ways with as many as six starters on defense.

Salary cap figures obtained by The Sun show that the defending Super Bowl champions are a towering $20.5 million over next season's projected $72 million ceiling, with only 30 players signed for the 53-man roster.

The Ravens' front office insists that the core of the team will remain intact, but there is increasing speculation that a major overhaul on defense is on the horizon. Although the players cannot control the off-season decisions, they realize they have the final say for the next three weeks.

Before heading out of the tunnel for today's AFC divisional playoff game, many of the Ravens expect to look at their teammates with an unspoken understanding.

"We know this may be the last run for this particular group," said strong safety Corey Harris, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. "It'll be much sweeter if we win the Super Bowl."

The defense has built its reputation on consistency and playoff dominance. As the second-ranked defense in the league for the past three seasons, the Ravens have allowed only one touchdown in five postseason games, holding opponents to 5.2 points per game.

But they can feel that window of opportunity closing.

The nine defensive starters signed for next year account for $47.2 million of cap space.

Under NFL rules, no team's total salary can exceed a certain figure, which changes from year to year and is expected to be $72 million in 2002. That number includes the player's base salary and the pro-rated portion of any signing bonus spread over the length of his contract.

For example, a player who is paid $5 million per year and who received a signing bonus of $5 million spread over five years, would count $6 million toward the cap.

The result of those restrictions, which are designed to help maintain parity in the NFL, is that teams with many high-profile players, such as the Ravens, are forced to part with some of them.

That is what the Ravens will be facing next season - in addition to losing defensive tackle Tony Siragusa to retirement. Three starters - defensive end Michael McCrary, defensive tackle Sam Adams and middle linebacker Ray Lewis - have salaries that contribute a crushing $8 million-plus each toward the cap.

Two other starters - Harris and cornerback Duane Starks - will be free agents at the end of the year, meaning they likely will command higher salaries that also will present cap problems for the Ravens.

To keep 10 of 11 starters from last year's defense, the Ravens decided to restructure several contracts during the past off-season.

In effect, they traded continuity this year for more salary cap problems in 2002. Reworking the same number of deals this off-season to keep the defense together could mortgage the team's future.

"It has been proven in the league if you go to that restructuring well too many times, that it will catch up to you," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' senior vice president of football operations.

"Organizationally, we tried to do what we could to maintain this team to make another Super Bowl run at the expense of having to reshuffle the deck in the future."

The defense might be pushed into becoming younger.

Veterans such as 30-something defensive ends McCrary and Rob Burnett and 36-year-old safety Rod Woodson - who account for $17.5 million of cap space - have been rumored as cap casualties.

With the impressive play of ends Peter Boulware and Adalius Thomas, there is a rationale behind cutting McCrary and Burnett.

McCrary, one of the most tireless pass rushers in the NFL, has acknowledged that his $5.25 million salary likely will signal his release and end his days as a Raven.

"I would love to stay with the Ravens," said McCrary, second on the team's all-time sack list, who is on injured reserve after knee surgery. "But in the NFL, you've got to be realistic that there are no guaranteed contracts.

"Even if the team wants you to stay and you want to stay, it's just not reality. It's nothing personal. Sometimes, teams can't afford certain players."

The only given of the off-season is the restructuring of Lewis' contract, which likely will get done after the NFL draft. Beyond that, the choices are not clear-cut.

The biggest decision involves four starters - Boulware, Adams, Starks and linebacker Jamie Sharper - who will command top dollar this off-season. But with their salary cap chokehold, the Ravens may be able to hold onto only two of them.

If they can't keep Adams, they could have a completely new defensive front four next season.

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