Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco may be a good quarterback, he may be a great one, and after the Super Bowl next week, he may even be counted among the league's "elite" quarterbacks (whatever that means), but one thing is completely certain—Flacco is in a contract year.
After the season closes, Flacco is headed for free agency. Granted, there's no chance that will happen, but it does means the Ravens need to come up with the cash to pay him. If anything, Flacco has proven he's the Ravens' franchise quarterback, and he's worthy of a deal to match that status.
The issue is whether or not the Ravens will have the money available to pay Flacco what he's worth. Earlier in January, Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun detailed the Ravens' salary cap situation for 2013, taking into account the retirement of Ray Lewis and not including any money to potentially be paid to impending free agents like Flacco.
He estimates that the Ravens are on the hook for just over $107 million in the upcoming season, with the cap likely not being much higher than the $120.6 million it was last year. That means the Ravens have around $13 million to work with, which means whatever deal Flacco ends up getting, it may not be all that lucrative in its first year.
There are two options for the Ravens and Flacco—a contract or the franchise tag, which is worth $14.6 million in 2013. Either way, there will need to be restructures elsewhere on the roster and difficult decisions made to afford either payday.
Though Flacco has helped take the Ravens to the playoffs in each of the five seasons he's been their starter, this is the team's first Super Bowl appearance in that span. A win would likely increase Flacco's value and with it his salary, but it will be a stretch to assume that Flacco will get a deal akin to that of the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, who signed a five-year, $78.5 million deal in 2010 and who could have made even more than that had he asked for it.
One could guess that Flacco's eventual contract could end up somewhere around the Matt Schaub-Matt Ryan level. Both men have approximately the same amount of money paid out to them over the course of the deals, with Ryan's, which he signed in 2008, worth $66 million over six years and Schaub's, which dates to just last year, worth $66.15 million over five. Though it seems like these two contracts are the same, there are differences of note, which need examining when we're talking about what Flacco may expect in the offseason.
In terms of a cap-friendly deal, Ryan's serves as a good template for Flacco. Though his deal is worth just $150,000 less than Schaub's, the way his contract breaks down on a yearly basis fits better with how much money the Ravens have to work with in 2013. However, it would require Flacco to have not only patience with his team but also the trust that he'll be in Baltimore long enough to see the yearly increases in salary.
Ryan made just $295,000 in base salary the first year of his deal, however, that first year also included a $1.49 million signing bonus and $2.505 million in other bonuses, making his final payday in 2008, $4.290 million. In contrast, Schaub's base pay was $4.4 million and the cap hit a total of $11.7 million including bonuses.
With a low base salary and bonuses that can be prorated over the course of the deal, Flacco can save his team a lot of financial grief. There are a number of his teammates who have played major roles in the Ravens' success this season who are headed to free agency who would be better off re-signed by Baltimore, and the announcement on Thursday that safety Ed Reed has no retirement plans also means that the Ravens will likely need to find some cash for him this offseason as well.
Schaub's total first-year cap hit is $11.7 million and rises to a high of $19 million in the final year, whereas Ryan's contract took a $5 million leap between the first and second years when salary and bonuses are combined, peaked in 2011 with a total $13.74 million in payouts and drop down to $10 million in the final year.
Should Flacco get a contract in the $65-70 million range this offseason, that will put him in the top 10 of quarterback paydays—and in fact, just the $150,000 more that Schaub is making over Ryan makes him the seventh-highest paid quarterback in the league, while Ryan ranks 13th. That seems fair for Flacco, considering his track record of playoff appearances as well as the fact that we've likely yet to see his ceiling.
Considering the cap issues, the franchise tag seems to be out of the question for Flacco this year and will only happen if negotiations between his camp and the Ravens completely break down. If Flacco got the tag, there would need to be a housecleaning of current contracts and the vast majority of impending free agents would be forced to walk. It would hurt the team far more than it would help it and doesn't ultimately serve Flacco's best interests.
With a deal structured like Ryan's, Flacco gets the money a quarterback of his caliber is worth and the Ravens are able to do it in a cap-friendly way that won't cost other contributing members of the Ravens roster their jobs in Baltimore. It acknowledges his value to his team but doesn't unduly break the bank.
A smaller paycheck in 2013 and gradual increases in the years to follow—when the cap is likely to grow significantly—means Flacco has to wait to get the big money, but as long as he trusts that the Ravens want him under center through the duration of his deal, it's worth it.