OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A recent conversation with his father reinforced to Will Hill why he didn’t want to be anywhere else after the Ravens had given the talented, but troubled safety a chance last summer.
“He was like, ‘Look, this is a great fit for you,'” said the 25-year-old, who signed a two-year deal with the Ravens on Thursday. “He said, ‘If you ever come across getting a deal, all that off-the-field stuff, it has got to go. I know you’ve been doing a great job with it, and let’s just keep it up.’
“That has been playing through my head every day.”
He’s come a long way in a little over a year.
After being handed the third suspension of his young career last spring, Hill was promptly released by the New York Giants and faced a six-game ban to begin the 2014 season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Despite facing their own scrutiny with the Ray Rice saga and four other player arrests hanging over their heads at the time, the Ravens signed Hill to a one-year contract last July with the expectation that he would need to stay out of trouble while serving his suspension to receive a chance.
Returning in Week 7 and immediately becoming a meaningful part of the defense, Hill started the final eight games of the regular season, collecting 42 tackles, four pass breakups, and an interception returned for a touchdown against New Orleans in Week 12. Pro Football Focus graded Hill as its 14th-best safety in the NFL in 2014.
The Ravens were encouraged with his play, but head coach John Harbaugh laid down the challenge to Hill at the end of the season to focus on what was important after he received two marijuana-related suspensions in his first three years and dealt with other off-field issues. After character concerns led to him going undrafted in 2011, Hill was suspended for Adderall use as a rookie with the Giants in 2012 and was arrested in 2013 for failing to pay child support.
“We put it on his plate a little bit. We’re challenging him for the next three or four months,” Harbaugh said in January. “‘Are you going to come back a better player than you were when you left here in January, and is that slate going to be clean?’ We fully expect it to be. He just had a baby. He’s doing great with his family, and we fully expect him to do a great job with that, and we’re going to try to help him anyway we can with that.”
Upon signing his restricted free-agent tender, Hill regularly attended spring workouts in Owings Mills and became more and more comfortable with defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ system. His family members came to training camp practices on a daily basis this summer while the University of Florida product worked exclusively with the starting defense after Matt Elam suffered a torn biceps during the first week of camp.
After five different safeties received extensive snaps a year ago, the Ravens hope Hill and veteran newcomer Kendrick Lewis will provide stability in the back end of the secondary. With some long-term security in hand, Hill says the focus is solely on winning a championship as he looks forward to making plays with Lewis, who has started 66 games in his first five NFL seasons with Kansas City and Houston.
“I think we’re a deadly combo, because we complement each other well,” Hill said. “I can play in the box and play deep, and he can do the same thing. You never know what you’re going to get.”
The 6-foot-1, 228-pound safety has done everything that the Ravens have asked of him to earn an extension as general manager Ozzie Newsome spent much of the offseason solidifying a maligned secondary by signing top cornerback Jimmy Smith to a long-term extension, inking Lewis to a three-year deal, and restructuring Lardarius Webb’s contract.
Hill made no secret about it being a dream to make money — terms of the deal were not immediately made available on Thursday — but he also can’t help but feel like he’s found a home with a support system that cares about him beyond what he can do on the football field.
Now, it’s up to him to prove that the Ravens made a wise investment.
“You go to most places, and it is just a business,” Hill said. “Even though it is just a business, it is more family-oriented around here, and I know I have a good rapport with all my coaches — the offensive coaches, too. I talk to Ozzie every day, and Mr. [Steve] Bisciotti — we have good conversations. They mingle with my family, so everybody is really family-oriented around here.”