Signing Pitta is major first step for Ravens

Nearly a year ago to this day, the Baltimore Ravens signed quarterback Joe Flacco to an NFL-record contract. On Friday, they gave him another valuable gift.

Signing tight end Dennis Pitta to a five-year, $32 million contract leaves no doubt that Flacco will have his security blanket for the foreseeable future.

There was never any doubt that the Ravens were going to bring back Pitta for the 2014 season. The Ravens were going to put the franchise tag on Pitta if they didn't strike a long-term deal.

The key here is making certain that Pitta is going to be around for years to come. The theme of this offseason for the Ravens is to improve the NFL's 29th-ranked offense. Securing Pitta is a significant move to making this offense better for the long run.

At 28, Pitta is in the prime of his career. He gives the Ravens reliability in the passing game. Pitta doesn't drop passes, converts third downs and finds a way to get open in the end zone.

While Pitta doesn't get mentioned in the same company as Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, he is just as valuable to the Ravens' offense. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Pitta has been one of the most frequently targeted tight ends over the last two seasons. Flacco targeted Pitta on 26.4 percent of the routes he ran in 2012 and 2013. That ranks third among tight ends behind Gronkowski (29.2 percent) and Graham (28.7 percent).

Before his hip injury in July 2013, Pitta tied the Ravens record for touchdowns by a tight end with seven in 2012. In the Ravens' Super Bowl run, he scored a touchdown in three of the four postseason games. His 5-yard touchdown grab in the AFC Championship Game put the Ravens ahead for good in the third quarter. His 1-yard touchdown reception in the Super Bowl staked the Ravens to a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter.

"Dennis creates a number of mismatch problems for defenses. He makes it tough on them, and because of that, he really helps out our wide receivers," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "Opponents have to always pay attention to where he lines up and where his routes take him."

As much as the Ravens were criticized for trading away Anquan Boldin, they should be applauded for getting a deal done with Pitta. He is a clutch performer who steps up in timely situations. The best way to measure Pitta's impact is this: The Ravens ranked 31st in red zone and 20th on third downs with Pitta out for most of 2013. It would be a shock if the Ravens ranked that low with Pitta in the lineup for a full season.

Flacco is happy. He has that intermediate target he trusts to make the catch in traffic and not drop the ball. That was missing from the Ravens' offense last season.

New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is happy. Tight ends are a big part of his offense. Just look at Owen Daniels' production for the Houston Texans.

Pitta is happy. He has a rapport with Flacco, who is his best friend on the team. They often go out together with their wives, whether it's to get pizza or go to an Orioles game. Before games, Pitta and Flacco are usually the first players on the field, throwing passes to get warmed up.

And the Ravens' front office is happy as well. The other factor to signing Pitta to a long-term deal is the Ravens didn't have to use the franchise tag. That would've taken away at least $6.8 million of the Ravens' salary cap heading into free agency. Although the details of Pitta's deal aren't known, the Ravens reduced his cap number this year.

It's simple math: More cap room, more players. This gives the Ravens more freedom to add a center (Alex Mack?), offensive tackle (Eugene Monroe?) and wide receiver (Eric Decker, Hakeem Nicks or Julian Edelman?) in free agency. The Ravens are setting themselves up to be active players in the free-agent market after creating $5 million in cap room by releasing fullback Vonta Leach and linebacker Jameel McClain on Thursday.

Another ramification of signing Pitta is this allows the Ravens to turn their focus toward re-signing Monroe. While the sides are reportedly far apart, the Ravens have 11 days to negotiate with him before he hits the free-agent market. He is now the priority on the offensive side of the ball before free agency begins.

Reaching an agreement with Pitta is an impressive first step toward turning around the Ravens offense. But the Ravens know their work is far from done.