OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Not long after making their four-year contract with three-time Pro Bowl free safety Eric Weddle official, the Ravens addressed a crowded safety picture by releasing Will Hill.
The news came as a surprise to many fans before ESPN reported a couple hours later that Hill had been suspended 10 games for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
Hill had three drug-related suspensions in his first three seasons in the NFL — two related to marijuana — and had other off-field problems in the past. The Ravens signed Hill in the summer of 2014 when he had already been suspended for the first six games of that season and subsequently released by the New York Giants, but he had managed to stay out of trouble — at least publicly — since then.
With his latest ban, Hill will now have been suspended for 24 games in his first five NFL seasons.
Regarded by many as Baltimore’s best safety in 2015, Hill saw his playing time decrease when veteran Lardarius Webb moved from cornerback to safety in mid-December. The 26-year-old did not start the final two games of the season and played just 49 of the Ravens’ 122 defensive snaps over that time.
Hill finished 17th among qualified safeties in Pro Football Focus’ grading system, but the publication noted that he graded 70th over the final nine weeks of the 2015 season when he appeared to begin falling out of favor. Like many members of the secondary, Hill had his share of communication breakdowns and blown coverages that were often overshadowed by his hard-hitting style of play in 2015.
He was originally set to make $2.84 million in base salary for the 2016 season, which means that money is now cleared from the 2016 salary cap.
After signing a two-year, $7 million contract last summer, Hill started 14 of 16 games and collected 64 tackles, one interception, one sack, and six pass breakups while also leading the team in penalties. His 64-yard return for a touchdown off a blocked field goal was the game-winning play in the Week 12 Monday night victory at Cleveland.
Despite being scheduled to carry a $9.5 million cap number for the coming season, Webb has repeatedly been endorsed by both general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh as a starting-caliber safety this offseason. At Weddle’s introductory press conference on Wednesday, Harbaugh indicated that Webb would start next to the former San Diego Charger.
On paper, the 6-foot-1, 228-pound Hill may have been the better fit as a strong safety complementing the undersized Weddle, but the Ravens plan to use Weddle and Webb interchangeably and want more versatility and play-making ability from their safeties.
“You can bring both of these guys down and they can blitz and bring it really effectively,” Harbaugh said. “You’re not going to know who is down and who is deep, and that can be a big benefit for our defense.”
Behind Weddle and Webb on the projected safety depth chart are Kendrick Lewis, Matt Elam, Terrence Brooks, and Anthony Levine. Reserve safety and special-teams player Brynden Trawick agreed to a deal with the Oakland Raiders on Wednesday after the Ravens elected not to tender the restricted free agent earlier this month.