Jonas Shaffer: The Ravens built a dynamic offense on the cheap. Now they’re having to foot the bill.

By Jonas Shaffer

Two years ago, the Ravens had the best quarterback, best left tackle and one of the best tight ends in the NFL. They were the motors in their Maserati of an offense, finely tuned and high-speed, prone to the occasional breakdown but still a sight to behold.

And what did the Ravens have to pay for the league’s No. 1 offense? Not much. They were getting sports car performance at a 2008 Toyota Camry price tag. The NFL’s highest-scoring attack cost less than half the payroll of the NFL’s most expensive offense.

With tight end Mark Andrews, who led that 2019 Ravens team in receiving yards, signing a four-year, $56 million contract extension Wednesday, the Ravens took one step closer toward a new but long-awaited financial realm. One of the best assets in the league is a star player on a rookie contract. One of the worst problems is not having the money to keep him when that contract expires.

And the Ravens have been largely committed to footing the bill. In October, they made left tackle Ronnie Stanley, a first-team All-Pro selection in 2019, the NFL’s second-highest-paid offensive lineman. Andrews’ deal made him the third-highest-paid tight end. More modest deals for tight end Nick Boyle, running back Gus Edwards and fullback Patrick Ricard kept rising stars from reaching free agency. And quarterback Lamar Jackson, the 2019 Most Valuable Player, is in line for a franchise-record megadeal.

The spending has upended the Ravens’ investment strategies. In 2019, according to salary cap tracker Over The Cap, the team spent an NFL-high $94.5 million in cap space on its defense — and just $52.7 million on offense, third lowest. In 2022, when Stanley’s cap hit will nearly double, Andrews’ will triple and Jackson’s salary will rise by $21.2 million, the Ravens already have $102.1 million committed to their offense, 11th most.

That’s the cost of keeping the band together.

“It’s awesome to be able to be here for another five years and to be able to get [Jackson] signed here eventually,” Andrews said. “Again, the goal is to win the Super Bowl, and then after that, it’s to win more. Obviously, he and I have a very special connection. For me to be able to play with a guy like that for years to come, as a tight end, you can’t ask for anything more. I’m extremely blessed to be able to play at a place like this, with the teammates like this and a quarterback like that.”

The Ravens have already made tough calls on who’s in and who’s out. In April, Pro Bowl right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., one of Andrews’ closest friends and a beloved locker room presence, was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs for draft capital. He’s set to play out the final year of his rookie deal before hitting the open market; Stanley’s extension is worth nearly $20 million annually, and Brown’s second contract could approach or eclipse that mark.

Other accomplished Ravens will enter Monday’s season opener against the Las Vegas Raiders playing for a new deal, be it in Baltimore or elsewhere. Center Bradley Bozeman, a two-year starter who’s in the last year of his rookie deal, deflected a question Wednesday about the state of his contract negotiations, saying, “We’re just here to play winning football.”

Safety DeShon Elliott, another member of the Ravens’ foundational 2018 draft class, said last month that he’s “not worried about that money; I’m worried about this Super Bowl and playing with my guys.” The money, he said, will come. But the Ravens have only so much — the 2022 cap will be no higher than $208.2 million, up from 2021′s lower-than-expected $182.5 million — and the defense alone has five potential starters entering the last year of their contract.

“We try to be responsible in the short term,” general manager Eric DeCosta said in April of his team-building approach. “We try to be aggressive as well. We’ve tried to be proactive, as I think you’ve seen in the last few years with contracts with veteran players, with guys that we’ve drafted and developed. We’ve tried to keep as many of those guys as possible. We understand that if we do sign a long-term deal with Lamar Jackson, that’s going to change the way we’ve operated the last couple of years. We certainly understand that, and we look at that as a great problem to have. ...

“We will have to be probably a little bit more careful about which players we sign and which players we don’t sign. We may lose some good, young players. That’s unfortunately just the salary cap age that we’re in, and it happens to every single team.”

The Ravens’ financial future will come into clearer focus once Jackson signs, an outcome that team officials have said is inevitable. He is under contract through 2022, but the price for a top-tier quarterback rises every year.

In 2020, the Houston Texans and Deshaun Watson agreed to a four-year, $156 million contract extension ($39 million annually). In May, Josh Allen signed a six-year, $258 million extension ($43 million annually) with the Buffalo Bills. With another standout season, that could be a baseline number for Jackson.

The Ravens’ challenge, as ever, is allocating finite resources in an inherently unstable market. Andrews is perhaps better off. Asked Wednesday about his plans for his first post-contract purchase, he said he wanted to be frugal. Maybe he’d invest in real estate.

“There’s nothing that I really want to buy,” he said, “but I want to make my money grow.”

If only the Ravens had that luxury.


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