The lifeblood for any NFL team is the salary cap.
Teams that manage it wisely and those that can find the most players to play to the level of their cap numbers or beyond are generally the most successful teams.
Some mismanage their cap by overpaying for underperforming veterans. Such teams generally carry the most dead-money and that leaves them with fewer cap dollars to structure a competitive roster.
Those teams generally are not bidders for high profile free agents.
The Ravens typically spend to the level of the cap and that indicates commitment by owner Steve Bisciotti. But despite Bisciotti’s willingness to invest, Ozzie Newsome & Co. have rarely been players for big name free agents. Cap constraints prevent them from seeking any marquee names in part because the Ravens are invested in their own draft picks that oftentimes become productive veterans.
At times the Ravens have been guilty of overinvesting in their own picks and consequently when the production doesn’t match those lofty cap numbers it comes back to bite them. Players like Haloti Ngata, Ray Rice, Lardarius Webb, Eugene Monroe, Daryl Smith and Will Hill are all recent examples of players who for a variety of reasons failed to earn their pay and the resulting dead money limits the flexibility that Ozzie has to improve the roster via free agency.
This then places more pressure on the draft. It’s there that the Ravens can find productivity that surpasses the W-2’s of rookie contracts. It’s there that they can help offset the mistakes sometimes made by overpaying their own free agent veterans that they’ve opted to retain.
But what if the Ravens miss on draft picks at the same time budget constraints prevent them from acquiring a shutdown corner like Josh Norman; an edge rusher like Brian Orakpo; or a No. 1 wide receiver like Alshon Jeffrey?
Well, 2016 happens.
Hands are tied. The coaching staff is forced to milk the most out of the players that they have and hope that it’s enough to make it to the postseason dance where as we’ve seen, anything is possible.
But who is responsible for the compression of talent brought on by misfires on draft day and bloated contracts?
Ultimately THAT falls on “The Wizard”, Ozzie Newsome, the man behind the curtain.
Photo Credit: Baltimore Ravens
Ozzie is the one who signs off on veteran contracts and free agent signings. He’s the one who makes the final call in the war room on draft day. And lately those calls have been as off the mark as a new U2 album.
But Ozzie can’t be solely to blame for the recent draft blunders. He isn’t among the group that journeys through the bowels of the country, spending nights in motels where they “keep the light on for ya” in pursuit of the next Ravens’ diamond in the rough, the next crop of talent that matches the needs of John Harbaugh’s staff. That responsibility falls upon the shoulders of a Director of College Scouting (Joe Hortiz), 2 national scouts and 6 area scouts. They are largely responsible for gathering the intelligence needed to populate the Ravens draft board.
Of those men, Hortiz has been around the longest. He’s in his 19th season with the club. Of the other 8, six have been area or national scouts since 2006 with an average scouting tenure of 7 seasons while the remaining two are new to the team and are now scouting collegiate talent for the first time as Ravens.
The employment timeline of most scouts now employed by the Ravens closely approximates the tenure of John Harbaugh. Since 2008 (9 drafts) the Ravens have drafted two Pro Bowl players nominated as Ravens: Ray Rice (3) and CJ Mosley (1) with a total of four appearances. Not that the Pro Bowl is the end-all, be-all, but it is a reasonable bench mark for a successful NFL player.
During the prior 9 drafts (1999-2007) the Ravens had 10 Pro Bowlers and 1 UDFA Pro Bowler (Bart Scott) who accumulated a total of 37 Pro Bowl appearances.
Now in fairness, it is reasonable to think that some of the players drafted during the Harbaugh regime could still emerge as Pro Bowlers. But it’s just as reasonable to conclude that the total number of appearances will never approach 37, particularly when you consider that between 2008-2012 (5 seasons), of the 40 players drafted only 4 are still Ravens.
The organizational touch isn’t what it used to be on draft day.
Is it the scouts? Is it symptomatic of selecting in lower draft positions? Is there a disconnect between scouting and the coaching staff? Is it Harbaugh’s apparent greater involvement in the draft process than his predecessor Brian Billick? All of the above?
Whatever the answer is the Ravens need to uncover it and fast. They’ll need their young players to step up and soon.
A look ahead to the team’s 2017 cap situation shows that they’ll have $5.43M in dead money. The only teams with more are the Saints ($7.92M) and the Eagles ($6.66M). Only 4 teams have less cap space available in 2017 than the Ravens $14.2M, all according to OverTheCap.com and all assuming a projected cap of $166M.
Comparatively speaking the Ravens AFC North foes have the following cap availability in 2017:
• Browns ~ $65.6M
• Bengals ~ $44.5M
• Steelers ~ $39.3M
Bill Belichick’s Patriots have $65.1M.
RSR’s capologist Brian McFarland has the Ravens at $14.2M under the cap with 44 players under contract. Once the offseason begins the Rule of 51 will govern the cap until teams pair down to the final 53-man squad in September of 2017 when in addition to the 53 players the cap will have to account for the practice squad players and any players on injured reserve.
When teams don’t draft well (and it’s clear that the Ravens haven’t in recent years) and they haven’t managed their cap effectively (the evidence above suggest that they’re behind most teams), it’s incredibly tough to get better unless your highest paid players actually outperform their contracts.
That just hasn’t been the case with the Baltimore Ravens.
And both have taken place on Ozzie’s watch and in his jurisdiction.
Maybe he can rediscover that old wizardry.
If not, soon, no one will be paying much attention to the man behind the curtain.