These are extremely expensive, pivotal times for the Ravens, an organization facing major financial and roster decisions surrounding quarterback Joe Flacco.
Monday marks the first day NFL teams can name a franchise player, and general manager Ozzie Newsome says Flacco is the Ravens' only candidate for the designation.
If the Super Bowl champions don't sign Flacco to a contract extension prior to a March 4 deadline to utilize the franchise tag, they're expected to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent through either an exclusive franchise tender of $20.46 million or a non-exclusive franchise tender of $14.6 million.
Under league rules governing non-exclusive franchise players, the Ravens would be compensated with pair of first-round draft picks if Flacco agreed to a contract with another team and they didn't exercise their right of first refusal and match the offer. Under the exclusive tag, Flacco wouldn't be allowed to negotiate with any other team.
Contract talks have yet to resume between Ravens vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty and Flacco's agent, Joe Linta, since hitting an impasse in August, but are expected to pick up as soon as later this week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. The free agent signing period starts March 12.
"This has been the most curious negotiation in the NFL over the past year," said ESPN business of football analyst Andrew Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers vice president of player finance. "After the first Monday night game, John Harbaugh said 'Pay the Man!' and the public sentiment was certainly high towards a major contract extension for Flacco. During some down performances in the season, we heard a lot less of that.
"The key for a front office in making a franchise-defining decision is to not let that sway of emotions rule in business decisions like this. They have clearly prioritized Flacco in a certain market and it is unclear if the postseason performance has changed that."
Flacco now shares an NFL single-season postseason record with Joe Montana and Kurt Warner after throwing 11 touchdown passes in the playoffs, capping that run with three touchdowns in a victory over the San Francisco 49ers and being named Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. In the playoffs, Flacco completed 57.9 percent of his passes for 1,140 yards, no interceptions and a 114.0 quarterback rating.
Linta is seeking a contract that would make Flacco the top paid quarterback in the game. That would exceed Drew Brees' annual average of $20 million and Peyton Manning's $18 million.
"Somebody said, 'Should Joe be the highest-paid quarterback in the game?' I said, 'Yes,'" Linta told The Sun recently. "I'm not going to be apologetic for him. He's shown he's a big-time guy in terms of contract versus other guys. He's a lot younger than them, too. He's hitting his prime.
"When you do the contract, you want to look at two things: body of work and present value over his five years of work. You have to be able to project out what he can do and what he can do for the next five to six years. On both counts, Joe has been exemplary."
Flacco isn't expecting his contract to become an issue, striking an optimistic stance after the Super Bowl.
"This is a great organization," Flacco said. "I love being here. I don't anticipate any problems."
However, the Ravens are facing a tight salary-cap situation.
They're currently $9.864 million under the projected 2013 salary cap of $121 million with 49 salary-cap commitments totaling $111.136 million. That figure doesn't include having retained any unrestricted free agents or restricted free agents.
So signing Flacco to a long-term deal is the preference for multiple reasons. It would lock up the Ravens' homegrown quarterback for probably the next seven seasons. It would also grant them the freedom to potentially hold onto some unrestricted free agents — safety Ed Reed, cornerback Cary Williams, inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and outside linebacker Paul Kruger — and secure restricted free agent tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson and defensive lineman Arthur Jones.
"We're looking to get a fair deal with Joe, and, yes, the franchise number does consume a lot of cap room," Newsome said. "If we are able to get a deal done, it will allow us to participate more in the market if we choose. We understand what the priority is."
The Ravens are still carrying $1.8 million in dead money for former kicker Billy Cundiff.
However, they'll gain $4.35 million in cap space once linebacker Ray Lewis officially retires and can subtract his $5.4 million salary. More savings can be created if veteran offensive linemen Matt Birk ($2.75 million salary) and Bobbie Williams ($1.2 million salary) retire or are released.
The Ravens want to avoid parting ways with wide receiver Anquan Boldin and fullback Vonta Leach, who have respective cap figures of $7.531 million and $4.33 million.