The Ravens have prioritized upgrading their offensive line this offseason and they apparently see center as one position where they can do that. However, their options to replace Jeremy Zuttah seem to be limited.
In a move that appears to be more about improving performance at the position than saving money, the Ravens traded Zuttah and their 2017 sixth-round pick (198 overall) to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for the 49ers’ sixth-round pick (186 overall). In dealing their starting center of the past three seasons, the Ravens created $2.4 million in salary cap space and moved up 12 draft spots in the sixth round.
Zuttah must pass a physical to make the deal official, according to the Associated Press.
It was widely reported early Wednesday that the Ravens were planning to cut the 30-year-old, a move that was confirmed by multiple sources. The decision was reached after the Ravens had failed in recent days to find a trade partner. However, when word of his pending release became public, the 49ers stepped forward and a deal was made.
The Ravens acquired Zuttah from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before the 2014 season for a 2015 fifth-round draft pick. He started all 16 games in 2014, but played in just nine games the following year after he tore his pectoral muscle.
Zuttah played in all 16 games this past season, fighting through myriad injuries and even being selected to the AFC Pro Bowl team as an injury replacement. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 13th best center last year. His toughness and accountability made him a popular teammate, but Zuttah struggled at times, especially against big nose tackles.
Zuttah’s salary cap number was manageable for a starting center, an indication that he was jettisoned because the Ravens are seeking an upgrade at the position. Heading into the free-agent period, Zuttah’s $4.6 million salary cap hit for 2017 was the 12th highest on the Ravens, and it ranked 11th among NFL centers. However, Zuttah struggled the past two seasons with both injuries and inconsistency, and the Ravens want to get more athletic and physical up front in between guards Alex Lewis and Marshal Yanda.
Although the Ravens created $2.4 million of salary cap space with the trade, they also incurred $2.21 million of “dead money” on their cap. Trading Zuttah has the same cap effect on the Ravens had they released him.
There are no obvious upgrades for Zuttah available on the free-agent market. Nick Mangold, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection who was cut by the New York Jets late last month, is considered the best center remaining on the open market.
However, there are concerns about his age (33) and recent injury history, and the Ravens haven’t expressed much interest in him to this point.
Free agent John Sullivan — a longtime Minnesota Viking who most recently played for the Washington Redskins — has 94 career starts at center on his resume, but he’s probably better suited as a backup at this stage of his career.
As for the draft, Ohio State’s Pat Elflein and Louisiana State’s Ethan Pocic are considered the best centers in the class. However, it’s not an especially deep or highly regarded center class.