Pick-six: Ravens challenged with how to keep Pro Bowl players

When the Baltimore Ravens take the field for their first padded practices of training camp next week, they'll line up with what many believe is the best young roster in the NFL.

What's uncertain is how long the Ravens will be able to keep all of this talent.

Baltimore has once again become the NFL's gold standard in drafting by selecting a league-best six Pro Bowl players since 2016, a list that includes reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr., tight end Mark Andrews, cornerback Marlon Humphrey and outside linebacker Matthew Judon. Now, those half-dozen rising stars will be seeking new contracts over the next two years.

What are the chances of the Ravens retaining all of those breakout Pro Bowl players?

"It’s virtually impossible," said Mike Tannenbaum, ESPN’s front-office insider and former NFL executive for the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. "You have to get creative. You have to see if they can be selfless. It’s a good problem to have."

Others around the NFL, especially in the AFC North, would love to have this same problem. Over the past five drafts, Baltimore has produced nearly as many Pro Bowl players as the rest of the division combined (seven). The Cincinnati Bengals haven't drafted a Pro Bowl player since 2013 (tight end Tyler Eifert).

The Ravens are the favorites to win their third straight AFC North title because of Jackson's playmaking in the open field, Andrews' clutch catches in the end zone, Stanley's blind-side blocking and a stocked supporting cast.

In June, the Ravens' roster was ranked No. 1 by Pro Football Focus. Earlier this month, Baltimore received recognition from Football Outsiders for having the best group of players under the age of 25.

There's really little criticism over how the Ravens built this team. The bigger question is, when will Baltimore start making moves to ensure it keeps this foundation for years to come?

The Ravens have a strong history of keeping young talent. While many will remember how Baltimore was outbid last year by the Jets for middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, the fact is the Ravens have signed 13 of 18 drafted Pro Bowl players to second contracts. In addition to Mosley, the only exceptions have been guard Ben Grubbs and three fullbacks (Ovie Mughelli, Le'Ron McClain and Kyle Juszczyk).

"We’ll keep the guys we can, and the guys that we can’t, we’ll replace," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said at the end of June. "We’ll keep building what we’re doing here. I’m really confident, though, that a lot of these players want to be back. I know we want them back. So, I think that we’ll get a high number of these guys back.”

Judon, who led the Ravens with 9.5 sacks last season, is playing this season under the franchise tag after the sides couldn't reach a long-term deal last month. He will be an unrestricted free agent after the season and can sign elsewhere, unless Baltimore uses the tag on him again.

Stanley, who put together one of the best seasons ever for a left tackle, is playing in the final year of his rookie contract. After not allowing a sack last season, Stanley has positioned himself to surpass Laremy Tunsil as the NFL's highest-paid tackle at $22 million per season.

While Stanley is presumably the top priority for the next big deal, the Ravens held no contract talks with Stanley for six months before resuming them last week.

"It’s not really at the forefront of my mind. We’re still in talks, and hopefully, we are trying to get something done soon," Stanley said. "But I think my main focus has always been be the best player I can be [and] help my team win. The money usually takes care of itself after that.”

Andrews, Humphrey and Brown are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in 2022. Then there is Jackson, who would begin talks on a blockbuster deal after the season if he followed the same time frame as Patrick Mahomes.

Tannenbaum believes teams have to think outside the box when faced with this type of predicament. When Tannenbaum was general manager, he would sometimes call in the group of pending free agents and let them know it would be difficult to pay them at the top of the market even though each deserved it.

"One thing we can consider is possibly if you all take a little bit less, we can keep more of you," Tannenbaum remembers telling players.

Another option is trading someone before his contract expires to get value, Tannenbaum suggested.

The Ravens had been financially set up to keep many of these players. After lacking much salary-cap space over the past seven years, Baltimore was excited over the possibility of being a whopping $63.2 million under the projected $215 million cap. But following the money crunch from the pandemic, the Ravens might have just $10 million in space if next year's cap drops to $160 million.

“Right now, we’re living in the moment; we’re living in the now," Andrews said. "There might be a lot of guys who need to be paid here in a couple of years, but the group that we have and everyone around us right now, with the coaches and the players, it's just so special to look too far ahead. So, we’re taking it day by day, each moment, and trying to be the best team that we can be for this year.”