NFL's free agency model punishes savvy teams — like the Ravens

March 19, 2012|Mike Preston

The National Football League's plan is working well in Baltimore, the one where a good team penalizes itself.

So far, that's what has happened here with the departure of five of the Ravens' 12 unrestricted free agents to other teams in the early period, including starting guard Ben Grubbs (New Orleans), linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive end Cory Redding (Indianapolis).

Around towns, fans are wondering what is going on and some have called general manager Ozzie Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti cheap because they haven't signed or retained high profile free agents. But the Ravens' leadership is basically stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

The Ravens are only $4.7 million under the $120.6 million salary cap. When a team drafts well like the Ravens — or Pittsburgh or New England — most of the cap room is taken by star players such as Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Ray Rice and Joe Flacco.

Teams that draft well also lose "gems" — players they discovered — like Johnson, inside linebacker Jameel McClain and safeties Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski. And in some cases, as with Johnson or former Ravens linebacker Bart Scott, they will get overpaid by other teams.

The Ravens are a victim of their own success, and that's the way the NFL is set up. They want the weak to get richer and the rich to get poorer. For example, a team like Cleveland, which hasn't drafted well, can improve significantly during free agency.

It's called parity. The NFL doesn't want teams to become dominant again, like Pittsburgh in the 1970's or Dallas in the 1990's.

That's why the Ravens roster is being ravaged by other teams. They were in a similar situation a year ago, when they were forced to release veteran tight end Todd Heap, receiver Derrick Mason and defensive tackle Kelly Gregg.

Grubbs deserved his money, but Redding and Johnson were overpaid. It remains to be seen what the market will bear for McClain.

It's still early in free agency and not time to panic, but its hard visualizing how the Ravens can improve their offensive line, one of their top priorities during the off season.

Grubbs is gone, and there aren't any free agent guards left rated above him. In a semi-desperate move, the Ravens quickly re-signed unrestricted free agent center Matt Birk after losing Grubbs.

It was a solid move, but nothing to do cartwheels over, especially since Birk has struggled moving big tackles and nose guards off the ball in short yardage situations the past two seasons. They also gave left tackle Bryant McKinnie a $500,000 signing bonus last week, a clear indication he will return next season.

Hopefully, that bonus also included weight clauses and stipulations about him participating in off-season conditioning programs. Last year, McKinnie never got into top shape and struggled run blocking.

But even with the stipulations, the Ravens are now set to return the same average group from a year ago minus Grubbs, their best offensive lineman. Can they be as good as a year ago?

Probably not.

They've got young, experienced linebackers who can step in for both Johnson and McClain if necessary, but their special teams play will drop off without Nakamura and Zbikowski. And if Reed gets injured, the Ravens could have major problems in the secondary because of those departures.

But that's life in the NFL.

In the Ravens situation, there are few fingers to point at anyone. Oh, maybe they could have increased the ante a little for Grubbs, or threw in a crab cake for Philadelphia guard Evan Mathis, but the outcome probably wouldn't have been any different.

The Ravens have to manage money in this time of turnover. As long as the Ravens continue to draft well, they can stay competitive and remain in the playoff hunt every year in the NFL. The only problem is that they eventually have to feed themselves — and 31 other teams.

It's called parity, a system where good teams have to be punished for being good.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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