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With salary cap issues, Ravens might not be able to keep three young defenders

Outside linebacker

Paul Kruger

emerged as a dangerous pass rusher this season, relentlessly tormenting quarterbacks. Inside linebacker

Dannell Ellerbe

tapped into his potential as a versatile three-down defender, proving capable of chasing down running backs or blitzing quarterbacks. And cornerback

Cary Williams

played well, entrusted with guarding opponents' top receivers after

Lardarius Webb

tore his anterior cruciate ligament.

Although all three young defenders are in their prime and pivotal to the

Ravens

' bid to reach and win the

Super Bowl

heading into Sunday's

AFC

championship game against the

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New England Patriots
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, this could be their final game playing for the

AFC North

champions.

Due to a tight salary-cap situation that could become even more problematic if the Ravens are unable to hammer out a long-term deal with quarterback

Joe Flacco

to avoid using a $14.6 million franchise tag to retain him, the team could struggle to even retain one of the defensive trio of unrestricted free agents. The salary cap isn't expected to go up much from the $120.6 million level of this past season.

"When a team has success like the Ravens, they're always going to feel better about extending their guys if they can," said former

Green Bay Packers

vice president and chief negotiator Andrew Brandt, an

NFL

business analyst for

ESPN

. "At the end of the day, it comes down to decisions made after the emotion of the season has died down. They're difficult choices about a group of good, young players.

"They've got quality players, but the key for them is prioritizing. Beyond Flacco, where do you spend your energy and money? They've obviously got some tough choices facing them."

Bracing for free agency, Ellerbe recently hired Georgia-based agent Hadley Engelhard. And Kruger is switching to Athletes First, a large California firm that's the fourth agency to represent him since he entered the league as a second-round draft pick from Utah in 2009.

In particular, Kruger's star is rising after his career-high nine sacks in the regular season and 2 1/2 more in the playoffs.

Pass rushers tend to receive big-money contract offers, even situational ones like Kruger.

Last year,

Kamerion Wimbley

signed a $35 million deal with the

Tennessee Titans

and

Mark Anderson

received $28 million from the Buffalo Bills.

Although Kruger prefers to remain in Baltimore, he could potentially command offers in the $35 million to $40 million range that the Ravens can't afford to match.

"There's nothing I want more than to remain a Raven, but I haven't really thought about it," Kruger said. "It's an awesome place to play. I would love to be here."

Strong safety

Bernard Pollard

is certain that Kruger is going to cash in on the open market.

"Paul's setting himself up for the future," Pollard said. "I think he has a good shot at breaking the bank because this league, this team, we want pass rushers. We want guys who can rush the quarterback and Paul is a heck of a guy to do that."

So much hinges on the pending offseason negotiations between Ravens vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty and Flacco's agent, Joe Linta, who has repeatedly labeled the former Delaware standout a "top five elite quarterback."

If the Ravens have to use the franchise tag on Flacco by a March 4 deadline, it will make it harder to keep their defense together.

"It all starts with the quarterback," said Brandt, who's also a professor at The Wharton School of Business at the

University of Pennsylvania

. "They're obviously not going to let him go, so it's either sign him to a long-term deal or franchise him. He's their No. 1 priority. How much cash and cap does that leave for the remaining group?"

With 42 contracts on the books for 2013, not including the $4.35 million the Ravens will save with inside linebacker

Ray Lewis

' pending retirement, Baltimore is already at $107.396 million in salary-cap commitments for next season. That includes the $1.182 million the Ravens are allowed to carry over to next season, and $1.8 million in remaining dead money for former

Pro Bowl

kicker

Billy Cundiff

even though he's no longer on the roster.

The savings that will be realized by the end of Lewis' career could allow the Ravens the option to keep Ellerbe.

With 89 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks, Ellerbe's value has skyrocketed, especially since Lewis is departing and

Jameel McClain

has to prove he's healthy again after a spinal cord contusion. However, Ellerbe could cost over twice as much as McClain's $10.5 million contract, which he signed last year.

"Everything that I could possibly want is here, but it's a business," Ellerbe said. "It's not up to me. If it was up to me, I'd be here."

Williams gambled on himself before the season by rejecting the Ravens' offer of a three-year, $15 million contract extension.

He's expected to make more than that as a free agent, possibly in another NFL city, following a respectable season where he had 75 tackles, four interceptions and 17 pass deflections.

With two interceptions against

Denver Broncos

quarterback

Peyton Manning

in last Saturday's game in the AFC divisional round,

Corey Graham

is proving to be a capable second cornerback if Williams leaves. Plus, Webb is expected to be recovered by next season.

Williams isn't giving up hope on staying in Baltimore, but he is realistic about the situation.

"Most importantly is to impress these guys," Williams said. "If it impresses others, that's cool as well."

The Ravens' players with the largest salary-cap figures for next season are outside linebacker

Terrell Suggs

($13.02 million), defensive tackle

Haloti Ngata

($11.5 million) and wide receiver

Anquan Boldin

($7.5 million). Suggs and Ngata are both potential candidates to restructure their deals to lower their cap figures.

Boldin is due a $6 million base salary, fullback

Vonta Leach

has a $4.33 million salary-cap figure, and

Pro Bowl

return specialist

Jacoby Jones

has a $4.9 million salary-cap figure and a $4 million base salary. Jones could be due a contract extension that might lower his cap figure for 2013 by spreading out the money.

If Boldin and Leach don't lower their amounts through pay cuts or contract extensions, they could become unwanted cap casualties.

Should veteran center

Matt Birk

retire or be cut, it would free up $2.05 million in cap savings for the Ravens. Another $1.2 million can be saved if guard

Bobbie Williams

is off the roster.

Pending business also includes assigned projected tender levels and corresponding draft pick compensation for restricted free-agent tight ends

Dennis Pitta

($2.023 million, second-round) and

Ed Dickson

($1.323 million, original third-round), defensive end

Arthur Jones

($2.023 million) and others. The Ravens could non-tender offensive lineman

Ramon Harewood

and safety

Emanuel Cook

and long snapper

Morgan Cox

, and then re-sign Cox to the veteran minimum to save money.

The restricted free agent tenders and exclusive-rights free agent tenders all count against the salary cap and will add up.

The Ravens have to decide whether to try to keep free safety

Ed Reed

, a 34-year-old former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, whose $44.5 million contract is expiring. If Reed and Baltimore can't agree on a deal, he's expected to weigh retirement against possibly finishing his career with another NFL team.

Once the season ends, the Ravens are expected to aggressively try to kick-start contract discussions with Flacco and attempt to hold onto their other free agents. Free agency begins March 12.

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"It's all about prioritizing," Brandt said. "Each team, has their own internal mechanism for how to sign players. I know Pat Moriarty very well. He does a good job. He works well with

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Ozzie Newsome
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and figures out what needs to be done.

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"It's really about understanding how to spend your money and working from the top down from ownership to the general manager to the coach. This is a very important offseason for the Ravens."

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