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Baltimore Ravens eye seismic changes to counter cap squeeze

Members of Ray Lewis' family were the only ones left in the locker room, with the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII triumph more than an hour old. As the iconic linebacker re-entered, finally done with all his media obligations, he was met by John Harbaugh.

"Remember what we talked about the last five years?" Harbaugh asked, embracing his captain.

Lewis nodded. They'd talked, over their time together, about what the looks on each other's faces would be like in this moment they had been chasing. And then, they knew.

Just like that, it's gone now, as is an era of Baltimore Ravens football. Overdramatic? Maybe. But the transition this franchise will experience this offseason, with Lewis retiring and others likely gone, promises to be seismic in comparison to the changes the roster has undergone in the past.

The loss of Lewis isn't the only reason why. Harbaugh surely engaged in other embraces Sunday night that were congratulations doubling as goodbyes.

A reality of the 2013 offseason is that the flat salary cap -- for a second consecutive year, changes to spending limits will be minimal, and projections say there won't be a jump in 2014, either -- is fixing to drop the hammer on a large number of clubs. The New York Giants, this week, were the first example of a team feeling the pinch. And the Super Bowl champions won't be exempt.

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Many contracts signed years ago were built with cap inflation in mind, which is reflected by a player's cap figure slowly rising over the life of the deal. So now you have, in plenty of cases, cap charges rising for individual players without the collective cap room to account for it.

Baltimore is hardly alone here.

But as the team's brass huddles in Jupiter, Fla., this weekend to plan for the months ahead, some very tough calls will need to be made, some creativity will be necessary and, at some level, the roster will have to be reimagined. And that's about more than just moving on from No. 52.

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"We will not repeat what we did in 2001, because we are trying to build where we can win Super Bowls more than just one more time. ... We are not going to be restructuring contracts and do all of those different things to be able just to maintain this team to make another run. We're not doing that."
-- Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome

After the Ravens' last championship -- a 34-7 victory over the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV -- Newsome was part of that effort to bring the band back together by redoing the deals of players like Shannon Sharpe, Michael McCrary and Tony Siragusa, and pushing money forward, which forced a purge the year after.

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The truth is, the Ravens don't have much of an option here. That's because some of their most well-paid players -- Ray Rice, Haloti Ngata and Lardarius Webb among them -- have cap figures that already rise dramatically in 2014. Others, like Michael Oher and Jacoby Jones, are going into the final season of their contracts, meaning there's no room to restructure.

Here's a look at the Ravens players with the 10 highest cap figures for 2013, as it stands now:

OLB Terrell Suggs -- $13,020,000
DT Haloti Ngata -- $11,500,000
WR Anquan Boldin -- $7,531,250
OG Marshal Yanda -- $7,450,000
RB Ray Rice -- $5,750,000
CB Lardarius Webb -- $5,385,000
OT Michael Oher -- $4,955,000
WR Jacoby Jones -- $4,900,000
FB Vonta Leach -- $4,333,334
LB Jameel McClain -- $4,200,000
TOTAL -- $69,024,584

That doesn't account for Joe Flacco's new deal, or fellow free agents-to-be Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger, or pending restricted free agents Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson.

Now, there are teams that are in more dire straits. The rival Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, have 10 players currently accounting for a staggering $100.33 million of their 2013 cap room. But that includes nearly $20 million for Ben Roethlisberger, and Flacco is sure to push Baltimore's numbers closer to Pittsburgh's.

And that brings us to Job No. 1 for the Ravens' brass: Taking care of Flacco. When the power brokers return from Florida, Baltimore will make a push to get that piece out of the way, in advance of the March 4 deadline for designating franchise players. A long-term deal means an opportunity to massage the cap numbers. Conversely, falling short would mean being further pinned in.

Newsome raised the example of Robert Griffin III in discussing the non-exclusive tag on Wednesday, saying the Washington Redskins would happily pay the freight -- three first-rounders and a second-rounder -- once again to get RG3. His point: The Ravens might not be able to afford exposing Flacco to the market, where a team willing to pay two first-rounders to get him might be tempted to build a Ravens-unfriendly offer sheet, particularly in a year when the rookie quarterback class is historically weak.

The final computations on the exclusive franchise tender for quarterbacks won't be done until April, but it's expected to run over $20 million, markedly exceeding the $14.6 million on the non-exclusive tender. So if the Ravens have to use the exclusive tag on Flacco, that means Baltimore would have $90 million tied up in 11 guys (adding the quarterback to the 10 players listed above), and just about $30 million to spend on the other 40 on the roster (the top 51 count against the cap in the offseason).

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The Ravens aren't new to this business. Two years ago, they purged Derrick Mason, Kelly Gregg and Todd Heap. Last year, they had to let Ben Grubbs, Cory Redding, Jarret Johnson and Tom Zbikowski walk, and their cap constraints fueled some September drama with Bryant McKinnie, who wound up settling his squabble with the team and starting at left tackle in the Super Bowl.

Remember, what makes this operation run by owner Steve Bisciotti, president Dick Cass, coach John Harbaugh and Newsome the envy of many in the NFL isn't just nailing high draft picks like Suggs, Ngata and Flacco. It's also turning over rocks to find the Corey Grahams and Jacoby Joneses, and developing guys like Kruger for when players like Johnson leave.

To be sure, if Chuck Pagano and the Indianapolis Colts open a vault for Reed, or Denver looks at how it was eliminated and sees Reed as a solution, and the Ravens are forced to let a legend defect, the franchise won't look good for it.

But if you heard what the leaders of the organization said on Wednesday, it's clear that the Ravens understand and accept that the right path for the team's future won't necessarily be the popular one.

Bisciotti outlined the guys that left in 2011, and conceded, "We don't have the money for all of them," and then drove home the larger point:

"We have to have guys ready to go, and that's what we do," the owner continued. "We've proven it two years in a row that we can kind of shock the world and disappoint our fans at the same time, by letting some of these guys go, but letting young guys fill in and then going out and getting good values on the free-agent market."

That brings us back to that moment between Lewis and Harbaugh in the locker room.

They talked about the five years -- not five months -- it took to get to that point.

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Over that time, Harbaugh tied an NFL record by coaching a team to a playoff win in five seasons in a row, becoming the first coach to do so in his first five years. They went to the AFC Championship Game three times, and came excruciating close to making it to the big stage one year ago.

Point is, the Ravens kept giving themselves a shot and accumulating experience. Eventually, they broke through.

The reality of a 2013 situation so many teams find themselves in dictates that there will be change in Baltimore. The philosophy both Newsome and Bisciotti cited will allow the Ravens to embrace that change.

Because the plan here, clearly, is to have more than another shot or two at the scene the iconic linebacker and triumphant coach basked in on Sunday.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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