Peter King: Ravens Could Let Flacco Leave

Peter King-SI.com

The clock’s ticking on Ravens, Flacco to get a deal done

Was it only me listening to Baltimore owner Steve Bisciotti and trusted GM Ozzie Newsome the other day, thinking they’re going to throw the first big change up into this off season? Was it only me taking their words and reading resolve in them, and thinking it’s actually possible that Joe Flacco could be stolen by a quarterback-needy and starved-for-relevance team like Cleveland?
Listening to Bisciotti and Newsome, you’d be a fool to think it’s not possible. Probable? No. But look at the tea leaves. The Ravens have until March 4 to sign or put a franchise tag on Flacco, whose rookie contract expired after his heroic postseason run. If they don’t sign him to a contract by then, the Ravens have to decide whether to designate Flacco their franchise player or their exclusive-rights franchise player.
The difference: Exclusive-rights franchise players are frozen to their teams, and cannot negotiate elsewhere. Franchise players can seek offers from the other 31 teams, and if they sign one of those offers, their original team can choose to match the offer as it is written, or surrender the player and get the signing team’s next two first-round picks in return.
It has been presumed that if the Ravens can’t sign Flacco before the March 4 franchise-tagging deadline that they’d exercise the exclusive tag. That would mean committing a $20 million guaranteed salary — with another $24 million due Flacco in 2014 if Baltimore had to exercise a tag again next year. Two years, $44 million … significantly more than Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady make now. The regular franchise tag for quarterbacks, meanwhile, is $14.5 million.
Don’t be so sure of that exclusive tag. The Ravens were $5 million over the league’s $121 million salary cap at the close of business Friday, and that figure doesn’t include a dime for Flacco. Now listen to what Bisciotti and Newsome said Thursday:
Bisciotti: “We’ve proven it two years in a row that we can kind of shock the world and disappoint our fans at the same time, by letting some of these guys go, but letting young guys fill in and then going out and getting good values on the free-agent market.”
Newsome: “We will not repeat what we did in 2001 [after winning the Super Bowl, when Baltimore restructured and overspent to make one more run at a title]. We’re trying to build where we can win Super Bowls more than just one more time. I think our team is structured differently this time also. We do have some veterans that will probably be retiring but we have a great nucleus of young players and players that are just heading into their prime that we’re going to build this team around.”
The best solution, of course, is for Ravens’ chief negotiator Pat Moriarty, who meets with Flacco’s agent, Joe Linta, this week in Baltimore, to iron out a contract putting Flacco up in the upper stratosphere of quarterbacks with a contract that would be cap-friendly in the next two flat-cap years. Say, six years, $18.5 million a year, $111 million total, with cap numbers of $9 million and $14 million in the next two years. That’s where I’d attempt to draw the line.
Would the Ravens dare let Flacco go — to Cleveland, in the division, to a bitter rival, or to another team like Buffalo or Arizona? Would the Ravens be confident enough in their ability to retool on the fly with two extra first-rounders to deal for Alex Smith, let’s say, and throw the gauntlet down and say to the Browns: Go ahead and take Flacco; we’ll beat you anyway?

Flacco is 28. He is at the peak of his earning potential right now, coming off an incredible postseason (4-0, 11 touchdowns, no interceptions). He is a principled guy. It’d be interesting to see how he’d react if no team stepped up with an offer sheet and he had to return to the Ravens to play in 2013 for significantly less than he was offered last off season by the club — and before he became Joe Clutch in January and February. He would not be pleased. What would that mean? A holdout? Rancor of some other sort? I don’t know. But playing for $14.5 million would not make Flacco happy.
Let’s look at the field now. Cleveland was $48 million under the cap as of Friday. Signing Flacco would rob the Browns of the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, plus their first-rounder next year. Because the Browns used their second-round pick on receiver Josh Gordon in the Supplemental Draft last year, they wouldn’t choose until 68th overall in April.
But think of the shot of adrenalin for the Browns, if they could rip away Flacco from a team they despise. What sweet irony for Cleveland, to steal the Super Bowl-winning quarterback from the team that stole their franchise. With new owner Jimmy Haslam and uber-aggressive president Joe Banner dying to make a splash to show their fans this won’t be the same old Browns, imagine Cleveland signing Flacco for five years and $110 million, making him the highest-paid player in history. And say Cleveland makes the 2013 salary $35 million. That way it’d be almost impossible for Baltimore to match; if the Ravens balked at $20 million per, you think they’d accede to $35 million in Year 1?
So in my scenario, Baltimore passes on matching. Then the Ravens take the sixth pick in the 2013 first round and fortify the aging defense with the best linebacker or pass-rusher. Then, I’d assume, the Ravens would try to acquire a veteran quarterback in exchange for a mid-round pick (Alex Smith?) or a late-round pick (Matt Flynn?) and also draft a rookie, so that there would be two QBs in camp to compete with Tyrod Taylor for the starting job. The Ravens with two addition first-round picks over the next two drafts … a dangerous proposition considering what a strong personnel and scouting staff Newsome oversees.
Cleveland’s not the only team that could be interested. Ralph Wilson would write the check tomorrow for Flacco to come to Buffalo, draft picks be damned. The Bills are only $14.2 million under the cap, so they’d have to maneuver a few pricey contracts. But the Bills would have to think long and hard about Flacco. Cleveland, with its available riches, would be the best candidate.
Then there’s the issue of whether Flacco would want to leave. He wouldn’t; I can promise you that. But he would if he felt he’d made a fair proposal to the Ravens and they turned it down.
One more thing about what Bisciotti and Newsome implied the other day. Committing a cap number of $20 million to Flacco this year would cut off the ability to franchise any other players in the next two years — like much-needed linebacker Dannell Ellerbe or pass-rusher Paul Kruger this year — and it hamstrings the ability of the team to make smart football decisions over the next two years. Exclusive-tagging Flacco would likely, but not certainly, mean the losses of Ellerbe and Kruger and the iconic Ed Reed, and maybe even Anquan Boldin if he won’t lower his $7.5 million salary for 2013. Reed’s understandable. Losing two of the others, or all three, would be major blows.
Bisciotti and Newsome have to know the answer to the test before they sit down to take it. They have to accept the fact that they’d be willing, under the worst-case scenario, to lose Flacco before tagging him with the lesser designation March 4. It’s a big gamble. If you’re a Ravens’ fans, you have to hope it doesn’t come to that — and that Linta and Moriarty can get a long-term deal in the next three weeks.

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