Could this be Ngata’s last year in Baltimore?

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The Ravens are a franchise predicated on defense — tough, stingy defense, at that.  And for all of the praise that Ray Lewis garnered (rightfully so, mind you) for his stalwart career, much of his success would be impossible had it not been for the mammoths in the middle.

The unsung heroes of successful defenses, defensive tackles are responsible for occupying space and blockers to allow the linebackers behind them time to diagnose the play and find the ballcarrier.  And it should be noted that the Ravens have had their fair share of dominant defensive tackles.  Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa, Haloti Ngata — these three represent the pinnacle of the performance.  In fact, in 2005, when Ray Lewis only played six regular season games, many people attributed the lack of success to the lack of stability in the middle of the defensive line.

So, in 2006, the Ravens solved that problem in the first round of the draft, selecting Haloti Ngata with the 12th overall selection.  There were some who questioned Ngata’s work ethic and motor, but his tape was undeniable — a motivated Ngata was an unstoppable presence.  And motivation never seemed to be much of a problem in Ray Lewis’ locker room.

We all are familiar with the play and ability of Ngata, when healthy.  His dominance earned him a contract worth north of $60 million at the outset of the 2011 season — a questionable decision by Ozzie, in hindsight.  Because, although Ngata has undeniably been a force to reckon with for significant portions of his contract, he has struggled to operate at maximum health.  Granted, nobody in the NFL is operating at maximum health, but it seemed as though Ngata was always dealing with a debilitating injury.  And again, it should be noted that a debilitated Ngata is still too much for one offensive lineman to handle, but with all the talk about the salary cap crunch in recent years — and before this year, a lack of significant increases to said cap — each year, Ngata’s salary becomes harder to overlook.

To give some sort of idea as to the scale of his contract, Ngata’s cap number for the 2013 season was $11.5 million.  This upcoming season, it has bumped up to $16 million.  The next highest is Joe Flacco with $14.8, followed by Lardarius Webb at just over $10 million.  The Ravens have had discussions with him in the past about restructuring his contract, but they have amounted to nothing.

Where it gets interesting is in his dead money.  Dead money is the amount of money that will count against the salary cap in the event a player is cut from the roster.  It is often the primary focus of moves like cutting Jameel McClain and Vonta Leach — the organization will do a cost-benefit analysis and determine if a player is worth their cap number or if their cap savings are worth cutting ties with that player.  For the upcoming season, Haloti Ngata’s dead money is $15 million, making net savings of just $1 million — clearly not worth the trouble.  But in 2015, Ngata’s dead money decreases to only $7.5 million when compared to his cap number of $16 million, making him a prime candidate to be a cap casualty.

Seeing as how Ngata is a fan favorite, the Ravens likely would prefer to not simply release him.  And when he is healthy, there are few who doubt his ability to perform at the top of his position.  However, there is a need to reevaluate from which position Ngata helps most.  Recently, the organization stated that they will look into moving Ngata back to the defensive end position — the one previously occupied by Arthur Jones — and allow one of their younger defensive tackles to take over the nose tackle spot.  Terrence Cody was originally supposed to succeed Ngata, but his development never took off and he now finds himself on the free agent market with not many suitors (UPDATE: Cody re-signed for a one-year deal).

The obvious preference for the Ravens would be to work out a new deal with Ngata that allows them to keep him in purple and black at a more affordable cost.  However, Ngata hasn’t budged from his current terms, making their decision a bit harder.  It isn’t farfetched to think that his performance this season will dictate the terms of his future.

However, as the nose tackle position stands now, it appears as though Ngata may not occupy it.  In the 2013 offseason, Ngata talked about his struggles playing the 5-technique lineman spot (lined up on the tackle’s outside shoulder) and attributed his trouble to an abundance of space.  “Playing defensive end, it’s too much space for me,” Ngata said. “I like the guys around me.”

Yet before you question the Ravens decisions to move Ngata back to defensive end, consider that he would be taking over the 3-technique spot, and not the 5-technique — the difference being that the 3-technique is still technically an interior linemen, with a 3-4 outside linebacker often with his hand in the dirt next to the end.  This would allow one of Deangelo Tyson or Brandon Williams the opportunity to take over at nose tackle, and hopefully let Ngata utilize his athleticism a bit more to disrupt the backfield.

Whichever way the lineup shakes out, this is a vital year for the Ravens’ defensive line, and Haloti Ngata in particular.  This is a business after all, and somebody as deft at navigating the salary cap as Ozzie Newsome surely won’t let savings of $8.5 million escape his conscience.  Therefore, it is up to Ngata to prove his worth moving forward, or accept the fact that if he wants to stay a Raven, he will need to restructure.  Meanwhile, it is time for the organization to start finding out who their nose tackle of the future is once Ngata is no longer on the roster.

Defensive tackle isn’t a glaring need, but there is always a need to plan for the future.

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