As Eric DeCosta begins the work of crafting the Ravens' 2019 roster, he must tackle questions at the cornerback position, where veterans Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr bring proven ability but also hefty price tags for 2019.
DeCosta is scheduled to meet with the media Jan. 30 in his first news conference since succeeding his longtime boss, Ozzie Newsome, as the team's general manager earlier this month.
Smith and Carr represent two of the more significant roster questions among those still under contract. Atop that list is quarterback Joe Flacco and his $26.5 million cap figure for 2019, but he is hardly even a question at this point; with Lamar Jackson firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback, Flacco is almost certain to be gone either via cut or trade.
It is a more nuanced situation with Smith and Carr.
Both played key roles on a top-rated Ravens defense, and along with emerging star Marlon Humphrey, they were anchors of a cornerback group regarded as the deepest in head coach John Harbaugh's 11-year tenure, if not team history.
The Ravens have no desire to revisit the days of a few years ago, when a dearth at cornerback left them turning to fill-ins such as Chykie Brown or Dominique Franks against elite NFL offenses.
The Ravens would certainly like to keep both veteran corners, but that won't be easy in a salary-cap world when the Ravens are also hoping to re-sign Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley, address other key positions in free agency and hold on to restricted free agents Michael Pierce and Patrick Onwuasor -- each is likely to receive a second-round tender at a cost of about $3.1 million each.
Here is a case for and against keeping Smith and Carr:
The case for keeping Smith: When he's at his best, Smith has the height (6-foot-2, 210) and physical presence to compete against any wide receiver in the league. Harbaugh said it took a while for Smith to get back to 100 percent after he suffered a torn Achilles late last season and then missed the first four games this year because of suspension, but he came on strong during the second half of the season.
Smith recorded a career-high 11 tackles against the Kansas City Chiefs and the first two-interception game of his career in the regular-season finale against Cleveland. Smith finished the season with 45 tackles, two interceptions and nine passes defensed in 12 games.
The case for cutting Smith: He is, in a word, expensive. A couple of contract restructures from Smith's four-year extension signed in 2015 pushed some of Smith's money down the road, and now that is coming due.
Smith has a cap figure of roughly $15.8 million for 2019 according to Spotrac, which tracks player contracts. That would be the highest on the team assuming Flacco is no longer on the roster. There would be some dead money involved, but the Ravens would free up $9.5 million in cap space.
Smith has had issues with availability. Because of injuries or, this past year, a four-game suspension, Smith has played all 16 games just twice in his eight-year career. Smith turns 31 in July, but don't tell him that being on the high side of 30 is an issue.
"I'm young," he said after the season ended. "I've got a lot of ball left in me."
The case for keeping Carr: Coaches like to say the best ability is availability, and Carr posts every week. He has started all 176 regular-season games played by his teams throughout his 11-year career, the longest such active streak among defensive players. Other Ravens cornerbacks including Smith, Tavon Young and Maurice Canady have been slowed by injuries at various points.
Carr played outside and also in the slot at times this season, finishing with 45 tackles, two interceptions and 11 passes defensed, second-most on the team behind Humphrey (15). The Ravens' nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, he is considered an outstanding locker-room presence and leader for younger players.
Carr has a cap charge of $7 million next year, less than half that of Smith.
The case for cutting Carr: Carr turns 33 in May, and the Ravens could choose to trend younger at that position with Humphrey, Young, Canady, Anthony Averett, Cyrus Jones and any new draft picks. If they choose to keep Smith at his current salary, the money might not be there for Carr.
Cutting Carr would clear about $5 million in cap space, which could be reassigned to a position of need.
Keeping Smith and Carr at their present levels would eat up more than $20 million in cap space, which seems prohibitive given that they also have a proven starter in Humphrey.
The Ravens could approach Smith about a pay cut, but he could also balk at that notion, figuring if he is released he can look for more value on the free agent market. As they do every year, the Ravens have to weigh the value of these players against the cost and against other pressing roster needs.
It all makes for a very busy first month for DeCosta in the general manager's chair.
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