Once A Raven...

Suggs Signing Shows Again How To Build Teams And Keep Them Together In Age Of Free Agency And Salary Cap

July 16, 2009|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

The Ravens made Terrell Suggs the highest-paid linebacker in National Football League history Wednesday, but the $63 million price tag over six years was the cost of doing business in the NFL.

By keeping the loquacious pass rusher in Baltimore, the Ravens added another chapter in their instructive book on how to beat free agency and the salary cap. In an era when players in all professional sports casually trade uniforms and traditions year to year, they are one of the rare organizations with the ability to re-sign core players and keep the team together.

"I think it's a model organization," said Charley Casserly, a CBS television football analyst and former general manager of the Washington Redskins. "No. 1, they do a good job of picking the players. Then, they're not afraid to let a player go if they know they can't afford him because they're confident in their ability to develop and replace players."

It is a confidence born of a successful track record. Under general manager Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens have watched first-round draft picks become Pro Bowl selections. Suggs, who has 53 sacks in six seasons as a hybrid linebacker-defensive end, follows a long and illustrious line of franchise-type players who found Baltimore more alluring than the open market.

Among those who came - and stayed - were Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Chris McAlister, Todd Heap and Ed Reed.

That's what the Orioles - Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. spent his entire 21-year career here - and the Washington Redskins once did, but both area teams have gotten away from the winning formula. The Redskins rent a star player every free-agent period. This year it was defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, drawn to Washington by a reported seven-year, $100 million contract with $40 million in guarantees.

In contrast, the Ravens operate on the principle of finding the best talent in the draft and keeping that talent in-house. It's a system that starts with Newsome, but incorporates every level of the franchise.

"It is a process and Ozzie leads the process," team president Dick Cass said. "Ozzie tries to identify not only a Pro Bowl player, but one who brings something extra to the table - leadership, professionalism, intensity - that separates them from the others."

The process brings together player personnel, coaching and college scouting departments in a decidedly opinionated discussion. The goal, said director of player personnel Eric DeCosta, is an "honest evaluation of players."

"It's dangerous to fall in love with your own players," he said, "so we try to be objective and as critical as we can be. ... One thing I'm proud of is our ability as a staff, scouting and coaches, to be able to disagree and [still] reach a conclusion and make a decision."

It's not a perfect system, DeCosta is quick to point out. The Ravens let running back Priest Holmes and wide receiver Brandon Stokley get away in free agency and both went on to achieve greater success.

But, says Casserly, "you don't have many players who leave and who have tremendous success."

The results were somewhat mixed this year, in fact. While the Ravens extended the contracts of Ray Lewis and Suggs, they lost linebacker Bart Scott to the New York Jets and a $48 million contract. Suggs recognized the difficulty the Ravens had in attempting to re-sign three players at the same position in the same year.

"I think it was just going to be hard to bring all three guys back, and we all knew that," he said.

Because of Suggs' extraordinary talent and his age (26), he was a bargain at almost any price for a team that places a premium on pass rushers. Suggs played under the franchise tag in 2008, and had until Wednesday at 4 p.m. to reach a new deal or carry the $10.7 million tag again this year.

Had the Ravens not gotten the contract done, they would have been staring at the highest level of franchise tag in 2010 at perhaps as much as $18 million, because he had been tagged previously. Players designated with the franchise tag are forced to accept a one-year contract at a salary based on the average of the NFL's five-highest paid players at that position. That made getting Suggs signed this season a high priority.

"It's another example of [owner] Steve Bisciotti supporting his GM and coach by paying the money needed to be paid to get the deal done," Casserly said. "And you've got to give Ozzie credit for making the decision [to take Suggs with the 10th pick in the 2003 draft] because there was some question regarding Suggs and his workout times. His times were not good."

Said Cass: "Steve has a strong financial commitment to winning. From the fan perspective, he's a good owner. He's willing to pay to win."

In Sports

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Locking them up

The Ravens have made a habit of not letting their first-round draft picks reach the free-agent market, instead signing them to lucrative extensions.

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