OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Free-agent safety Kendrick Lewis knew all about the Ravens’ tradition of defensive excellence, but it was an old college teammate and former Ravens offensive player who sold him on coming to Baltimore.
Reaching out to the man who hosted him on his first college visit to the University of Mississippi years ago, Lewis said it was former Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher who convinced him he was making the right decision. It was quite an endorsement from the 2009 first-round pick, who left the Ravens as a free agent last offseason after an up-and-down five-year run.
The two played together for three seasons at Ole Miss with Oher being drafted a year earlier than the 2010 fifth-round selection of the Kansas City Chiefs.
“He was just upfront. He poured his heart out in all the great things he had to say about this organization to make my decision what it was,” Lewis said. “With my nature and the type of person I am and how Michael Oher described this place to me, I feel like it’s the best decision I made.”
The Ravens hope Lewis’ five years of starting experience in Kansas City and Houston will bring stability to the safety position that saw five different players receive meaningful snaps in 2014. Finishing 23rd in the NFL in pass defense, Baltimore hopes Lewis will bring stability next to the 25-year-old Will Hill, who emerged as a consistent starter in the second half of last season.
According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks posted a 69.3 passer rating against Lewis in coverage, completing 20 of 33 passes for 252 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions in 2014.
Lewis cited his pride in preparation and watching film as a strong asset in addition to his ball skills at the safety position. He has collected nine interceptions and 28 pass breakups in his five NFL seasons.
“He’s a guy that’s going to come here and solidify our defense, especially on the back end,” new defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt said. “He’s a guy that we’d looked for. We needed a veteran presence back there. He’s a guy that has been starting in this league ever since he has been here.”
Former Ravens safety Darian Stewart — who signed a two-year deal with Denver last week — and rookie Terrence Brooks struggled in deep coverage last season, giving up big plays at inopportune times. Lewis was most successful in Kansas City when playing away from the line of scrimmage and protecting against the deep pass.
His role changed in his one season with the Texans where he frequently played closer to the line of scrimmage. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees prefers being able to use his safeties interchangeably, shying away from the traditional roles of free safety and strong safety.
That will be just fine with Lewis, who enjoyed being able to show off his versatility in Houston.
“I don’t want to just put myself in a box and say I’m just a center fielder,” said Lewis, noting how he led the Texans in tackles last season. “I’m an all-around player. I’m here to do whatever the coaching staff allows me to do or wants me to do.”
Lewis is familiar with 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam after the two worked out together in Florida a couple offseasons ago. With a few more years of experience than Elam, Lewis could find himself in a mentoring role for the draft pick whose first two seasons have been a disappointment.
The Ravens could still look to add more safety depth over the course of the offseason, but Lewis will be expected to step into a leadership role at a position that featured plenty of inexperience in 2014. The 6-foot, 198-pound simply hopes to make what he already viewed as a good defense even better.
“When you see the Baltimore Ravens, you see their philosophy,” Lewis said. “You see their team was made up on defense. Me being a defensive guy, me being a safety, that’s what I wanted to be a part of.”