Ravens face crucial decisions

BALTIMORE — Veteran starting cornerback Cary Williams knows exactly where he stands with the Baltimore Ravens: outside the Super Bowl champions’ budget.

Because of a relatively tight salary cap, the Ravens are unlikely to be able to afford to keep Williams even after he completed his best NFL season. The Ravens have $12.263 million available under the league’s salary-cap limit of $123 million, reducing their options for acquiring and re-signing players.

This isn’t an uncommon development for unrestricted free agents such as Williams and outside linebacker Paul Kruger, one of the top free-agent pass rushers available and expected to command a lucrative contract. The combination of their rising value on the open market, the presence of highly compensated players already under contract with the Ravens and the reality of the salary cap tends to drive them off the roster.

Williams said the Ravens have been upfront with him, communicating that he wasn’t one of their first priorities, ranking behind quarterback Joe Flacco, who signed a landmark $120.6 million contract that makes him the highest-paid player in league history, and free-agent inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.

“The Ravens kept it honest and as real as possible with me,” Williams said. “They told me they had to address the Joe Flacco situation first and then the linebacker situation because of the uncertainty with (inside linebacker) Jameel McClain’s (spinal cord bruise from December) and Ellerbe being a key component to our success. Then, after that, possibly me. So, we’re playing the waiting game and hoping for the best.

“It’s the cap that messed everything up. It’s a part of the business. Sometimes, you lose good players and great players. That’s what makes football such an exciting game because it levels the playing field. Everybody has the opportunity to add good players to their organization.”

Under the collective bargaining agreement, NFL teams are assigned a precise amount of salary-cap space each year. The salary cap rose from $120.6 million to $123 million for the 2013 fiscal year that begins Tuesday at 4 p.m.

The Ravens carried over $1.182 million from last year and recently gained $6.4 million when inside linebacker Ray Lewis and center Matt Birk retired and picked up an additional $800,000 when they terminated the final year of offensive guard Bobbie Williams’ contract Friday. They’re saddled with $1.8 million in dead money from former Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff, who was released before last season when he was replaced by rookie Justin Tucker.

However, the Ravens have yet to assign tenders to a restricted free-agent class that includes tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson and defensive lineman Arthur Jones.

And the Ravens have several veterans with high salary-cap figures, including outside linebacker Terrell Suggs ($13.02 million), defensive tackle Haloti Ngata ($11.5 million) and wide receiver Anquan Boldin ($7.531 million).

Cary Williams isn’t the only player waiting to see how the Ravens allocate their money. Free safety Ed Reed, 34, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time after the expiration of his six-year, $44.5 million contract. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has expressed confidence in his chances of working something out with Reed, who still hasn’t hired an agent.

In the Ravens’ case, their salary cap, which is managed by vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty, is an annual challenge. That’s because the team has a strong track record of drafting well under Newsome.

It makes for an expensive exercise to try to hold the roster together. Of the top six salary-cap figures on the books for 2013, everyone but Flacco has been selected for at least one Pro Bowl and Flacco is coming off a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player performance.

“This is what happens when you draft well and you spend up to the cap to try to keep your team together,” said former sports agent Joel Corry, who writes about the business of football for National Football Post. “The Ravens are one of those organizations that knows how to evaluate talent very well with Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta.

“Like everyone around the league, the Ravens are faced with tough decisions because the reality is you can’t keep everybody you want to keep. That’s how the salary cap is designed. This is a hard cap. It’s not like baseball.”

NFL teams have multiple options when it comes to how they handle existing contracts, big or small.

They can terminate the contract early, as they did with Bobbie Williams when they eliminated his scheduled $1.2 million base salary for this year.

Or they can try to restructure and extend deals by adding more years to the contract and converting the base salary into a signing bonus and prorating that figure over future years to lessen the salary-cap impact. With a $6 million base salary, Boldin is regarded as a potential candidate for a restructure.

However, Newsome emphasized during the Ravens’ season-ending news conference that the team is generally averse to restructuring contracts. The Ravens did restructure contracts last year that lowered salary-cap figures for Yanda and strong safety Bernard Pollard.

“We are not going to be restructuring contracts and do all of those different things to be able just to maintain this team to make another run,” Newsome said. “We’re not doing that. That doesn’t mean that we don’t want to try to go and repeat.”

Operating the salary cap is regarded as a series of choices for NFL teams.

“Good teams always find a way to make it happen, and then there are other teams who watch it happen and don’t know what’s happening,” said Harold Lewis, Cary Williams’ agent. “The Ravens make it happen and are constantly in championship games and in that first category. Other teams complain when they have a top player that they have champagne tastes, but can only afford beer prices. It all comes back to how much you want to spend on that player.

“We’re looking forward to seeing how other teams feel about Cary Williams. He would absolutely love to be back with the Ravens, if the numbers are close. If there’s a huge discrepancy, then sometimes you have to do what you have to do. Sometimes, the highest numbers aren’t the best place for your player because it’s about comfort level and confidence level and system familiarity. It has to work for both sides.”

Before last season, Cary Williams declined the Ravens’ three-year, $15 million contract extension because he believed he was worth more.

After starting every game and making a career-high 75 tackles, four interceptions and 17 pass deflections, the 2008 Tennessee Titans seventh-round draft pick doesn’t hold any regrets.

Even though Cary Williams is likely headed to another NFL city, a large payday awaits.

“My time with the Ravens has been a great time, and we both benefited from the decision I made,” Cary Williams said. “At the end of the day, it’s a business. We won a Super Bowl, and not a lot of players get to experience that. It was an incredible run. I’m blessed to be in this position. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s something I’ve always aspired to, to set your family up for life.”

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