Ravens John Harbaugh is optimistic about keeping young cornerstone players

There has been a lot of hype and talk surrounding the prospects of this year’s Baltimore Ravens team heading into the 2020 season. They are considered as one of the top Superbowl contenders in the entire league and the only real threat to the reigning Superbowl champion Kansas City Chiefs’ quest for a repeat.

However, there’s been an equal amount of dread and doubt in the team’s ability to keep its abundance of young homegrown talent inhouse for years to come with so many of them up for new contracts in the coming years. Pro Bowl and All-Pro players like left tackle Ronnie Stanley, outside linebacker Matthew Judon, cornerback Marlon Humphrey, tight end Mark Andrews, right tackle Orlando Brown Jr and quarterback and reigning MVP Lamar Jackson will need new contracts with some as soon as next offseason in 2021.

While he and his staff remained focused on preparing for this upcoming season, Ravens’ Head Coach John Harbaugh appreciates the respect and reverence that his players are receiving around the league and in the media and believes having a surplus of young talent is not only a good problem to have, but he also expressed his confidence in the front office’s ability to retain a ‘high number of them as well.

“I’m very optimistic that Eric [DeCosta] and his crew will just do an amazing job of figuring out the numbers…We’ll keep the guys we can and the guys we can’t we’ll replace,” Harbaugh said in a Monday video press conference with reporters. “I’m really confident that a lot of these players want to be back, and I know we want them back,” Harbaugh said. “I think we’ll get a number of these guys back, a high number.”

The Ravens have historically been good drafters and developers of young talent under former General Manager Ozzie Newsome for over two decades and now under his successor Eric DeCosta who was promoted last offseason. Harbaugh compared the team’s high hit rate on finding the young playmakers on their current roster to the game of golf.

“You play the shots as they are presented, Harbaugh said. “The more shots you hit in the middle of the fairway, the cleaner the shots are going forward and that would be drafting good players. We’ve done that, we’ve drafted a lot of good players and we’ve developed them very well.”

Heading into his 13th year at the helm, Harbaugh has perhaps the most loaded roster he’s ever had, at least on paper. While he enjoys the praise being heaped on his players, his fellow coaches, and the front office counterparts, he isn’t surprised in the slightest in this team’s recent success and suggested that many of their current supporters wouldn’t have foreseen it two seasons ago.

“I’m pretty sure that last year and the year before everybody wasn’t talking about how talented we were and what a great roster we had, “said Harbaugh.

Harbaugh believes that his players have not only lived up to their expectations and draft statuses but have exceeded them. Several of his young pillars had breakout seasons in 2019 and he says that the team is presented with a pleasant problem, one that most franchises wish they were faced with.

“I think the guys have done better than they were expected to do and that’s a plus for us and a good problem to have.”

Stanley has established himself as arguably the best left tackle in the league and could become its highest-paid non-quarterback, Humphrey has blossomed into one of the best and most versatile corners in the league, Judon has become one of the most complete edge defenders in the league, Andrews is an elite pass catcher and top five at his position and Jackson is redefining not just the quarterback position but how the game of football is played.

He knows the reality that comes with being a successful team that wins a lot of games and is ripe with young talent on both sides of the ball, but he also believes that brighter days are on the horizon for the team in terms of future financial flexibility after years of being in cap turmoil due to the restrictions that came with the inflated contract of former franchise quarterback Joe Flacco.

“We’ll keep as many guys as we can. Harbaugh said. “I am very optimistic about the fact that we have a good cap situation going forward. We have not been in good cap shape for the last six years or so, really seven years.”

“Really every year we’ve been behind the eight-ball with the cap and that’s just the way it was. This year was a little better and next year will be a lot better. With that, we have to sign guys, but we’ll have money too.”

The biggest benefit of having a franchise quarterback playing on a rookie contract is that it allows the vast majority of cap resources to be spent surrounding him with high-level talent up front and at the other skill positions as well as building a stout defense to compliment the offense. This window of time is where a team’s championship window is at its widest because they are paying the player at the most important and most expensive position pennies essentially.

The Ravens used the entirety of the time that Flacco was on his rookie contract that included an exercised fifth-year option and while it paid off in the fifth and final year when they won Superbowl 47 in dramatic fashion, that was also the year that Flacco had a postseason for the ages throwing for 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns to no interception and was named MVP of the ultimate title game.

By waiting to the last possible moment and having Flacco channel his inner Joe Montana during that postseason, they had no choice but to make the highest-paid quarterback in NFL history, thus sending them into what would essentially be cap hell for almost a decade. While winning a championship is the ultimate goal and worth just about any price, not locking him up to a more manageable number before he made history and brought home the Vince Lombardi Trophy has forced them to make many tough decisions in the years that followed.

They had to let several key starters and contributors walk in free agency and cash in elsewhere and be extremely creative in structuring contracts of players that they did resign in order to construct contending teams while allocating a significant amount of their cap resources to one player. Fortunately, like Flacco, the Ravens used a first-round pick to select Jackson in 2018 and have the luxury of maximizing their championship window while he’s on a rookie deal.

They’ll undoubtedly pick up his fifth-year option but after watching Jackson have such a historic regular season in 2019 and the likelihood of them winning at least one Superbowl in the next three seasons while he isn’t making much being extremely high, I highly doubt they’ll wait until the last minute to him up to a long term deal. This means in the meantime they’ll have the funds to sign several of his fellow young cornerstones to extensions and new deals.

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