After nine productive years in Baltimore, longtime Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson became the team’s second defensive starter to depart on Wednesday.
Johnson has signed a four-year contract with the San Diego Chargers, leaving a void at outside linebacker for the Ravens. The 30-year-old linebacker was rumored to be of interest to the Indianapolis Colts, but the Chargers were looking for help at outside linebacker in a thin market at the position.
It was a bittersweet day for Johnson, who struggled with the juxtaposition of a new opportunity with the San Diego defense while acknowledging the difficulty of leaving the only franchise he’s known in his professional career.
“It’s been a weird day and a weird process,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “On one side, you’re really excited and thrilled about a new opportunity. On the other hand, you have a lot of relationships, and it’s just [a team you've] been through so much with.”
Johnson would not divulge specifics of any contract talks with the Ravens or whether he gave his former team a chance to match San Diego’s offer, but given the Ravens’ limited cap space and previous comments made leading up to the start of free agency, it was apparent he knew he would not be returning to Baltimore. However, he holds no ill feelings toward the organization.
“They made it clear,” Johnson said. “They were very respectful and handled it with class like they always do, but it was clear it was my time to go.”
Johnson will now play for first-year defensive coordinator John Pagano. Previously a longtime defensive assistant in San Diego, John is the brother of former Ravens defensive coordinator and new Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano.
In making his decision to join the Chargers, Johnson said the most difficult part of the day was sending a long text message to many of his former teammates. Aside from veterans Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, no player on the current roster had a longer tenure in Baltimore than Johnson, who came into the league the same year as fellow linebacker Terrell Suggs.
“I got pretty choked up, and it was tough to send that out and say goodbye.”
Unlike the departure of defensive end Cory Redding, the loss of Johnson leaves the Ravens without a comfortable replacement currently on the roster. Pass-rush specialist Paul Kruger would be the most logical current option, but he has never shown the ability to be an every-down player in his first three seasons in Baltimore.
Linebacker Sergio Kindle was drafted in 2010 as Johnson’s eventual replacement in the starting defense, but a fall down two flights of stairs only days before the start of his rookie training camp has derailed the early part of his career. Kindle was only active in two of 16 games last season after missing the entire 2010 season with a fractured skull.
Drafted in the fourth round of the 2003 draft, Johnson began his career as a reserve defensive lineman before transitioning to linebacker and becoming a full-time starter in 2007. Always overshadowed by bigger defensive names such as Lewis, Reed, and Suggs, Johnson provided strong run support and durability as he never missed a game due to injury in his nine years with the Ravens (he was inactive for one game due to a coaches’ decision in his rookie season).
His blue-collar style on the Baltimore defense made him a fan favorite. Never one to dance or draw attention to himself on the field, Johnson said he will always remain appreciative of the overwhelming support from Ravens fans.
“I’m just really thankful for the way the fans accepted me,” Johnson said. “I was kind of my own unique personality. Nothing brings a player more pride than looking into the stands and seeing someone wearing your number.”
Johnson finishes his run in Baltimore with 382 tackles, 20 sacks, and three interceptions in nine seasons and holds the franchise record of 129 consecutive regular-season games played.