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Twelve Ravens thoughts after first wave of free agency

Posted on 14 March 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens making significant additions and enduring substantial losses in the first wave of free agency, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I don’t think the departure of Terrell Suggs has sunk in as most expected one of the franchise’s most iconic players to return for a 17th season. While Ray Lewis had the storybook ending and Ed Reed’s free-agent exit played out more gradually, Monday’s news was so abrupt.

2. Adding 29-year-old Mark Ingram made less sense if 2019 were shaping up to be more of a transition year with an eye toward the future, but he’s a well-rounded upgrade and has lower mileage as a timeshare back. His pass protection is also an upgrade over incumbents. Solid signing.

3. Ingram’s perception suffers from an “Alvin Kamara effect” as well as the infatuation some had with signing Le’Veon Bell, but he ranks first in yards per carry (4.71) and fourth in yards after contact per attempt (2.90) among backs with 550 carries since 2014, per Pro Football Focus. He’ll help.

4. Talent and on-field production are paramount, but I couldn’t help but think Ingram’s reputation in New Orleans and Earl Thomas’ winning pedigree in Seattle carry extra weight with the level of experience and leadership leaving Owings Mills this offseason.

5. The Thomas signing certainly reinforced Baltimore’s philosophy at safety after the organization failed with early draft picks and “value” signings early in the post-Ed Reed era. The Ravens have now given out a safety contract of $26 million or more in three of the last four offseasons.

6. Those with a longer-term viewpoint may not have cared for Eric DeCosta forgoing potential third- and fifth-round compensatory picks to sign Thomas and Ingram, but you can’t hold yourself prisoner to what still amounts to lower-percentage draft choices if the right free agent is available. There’s a middle road.

7. An optimistic outlook would say Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams haven’t had enough snaps to show what they can do, but coaches would have loved to have eased Suggs’ workload last year if either were deemed worthy. Either way, these 2017 draft picks have much to prove.

8. Adding a pass rusher or two must be a top priority for a front seven that’s endured substantial losses. That said, I think a great secondary carries more value in today’s game with more quick-drop passing and run-pass options that can really neutralize edge pressure.

9. More snaps are in order for the 2018 platoon of Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young, but a Daryl Smith-like stopgap would make me feel better about inside linebacker rather than expecting both to fill a full-time role without a hitch. We’ll found out how much Baltimore will miss C.J. Mosley.

10. Matt Skura received an additional $533,558 — a league high — in 2018 performance-based pay, a collectively-bargained program that compensates players based upon their playing time relative to salary levels. Making a $555,000 salary last year, Skura has provided good value making 28 starts the last two seasons.

11. Wink Martindale deserves much credit for last year’s defensive success, but losing Eric Weddle, Suggs, and Mosley will challenge the coordinator who gave those veterans so much freedom to make modifications before the snap. Thomas’ arrival helps, but there will certainly be an adjustment.

12. How does a Sunday night or Monday matchup of Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., and the Cleveland passing game against Thomas, Marlon Humphrey, and the Baltimore secondary sound? Dismissing Pittsburgh would be very unwise, but Ravens-Browns sounds pretty darn interesting now.

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Ravens add six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas to revamped defense

Posted on 13 March 2019 by Luke Jones

Following the departures of three former Pro Bowl players and their 2018 sack leader in the last week, the Ravens were looking like a defense in the midst of an unsettling youth movement.

That perception changed dramatically with an agreement to sign six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas to a four-year, $55 million contract with $32 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The former Seattle Seahawk not only replaces veteran Eric Weddle at free safety, but he provides Baltimore a ball-hawking presence for the first time since the days of Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed patrolling the secondary.

After holding out for the entire 2018 preseason over a contract dispute, the 29-year-old Thomas appeared in only four games last year before suffering a season-ending broken lower leg. However, his play-making ability was still evident despite missing all of training camp as he intercepted three passes, which would have led the Ravens defense for the entire season.

Thomas also missed the final five games of the 2016 season with a broken tibia.

Part of the “Legion of Boom” secondary that helped lead the Seahawks to a Super Bowl championship and an appearance in another, Thomas has recorded 28 interceptions and 68 pass breakups in 125 career games. The only seasons in which the 2010 first-round pick from Texas has missed the Pro Bowl since his rookie year were his injury-shortened campaigns in two of the last three years as he’s been regarded as the consensus best free safety in the NFL since the final years of Reed’s brilliant career.

Thomas’ impressive range will afford defensive coordinator Wink Martindale the flexibility to call more single-high safety looks, something the Ravens had to be careful in using with a less athletic Weddle at the position. Such an alignment plays to the strengths of strong safety Tony Jefferson, who is better playing closer to the line of scrimmage where he can stop the run and blitz in certain situations.

Much work remains to be done on the front seven after the departures of four-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, seven-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker and potential future Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs, and rush specialist Za’Darius Smith. However, the secondary is shaping up to be even better than it was a year ago with Thomas and Jefferson at safety, the trio of Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, and Jimmy Smith at outside cornerback, and slot cornerback Tavon Young.

The reported signings of Thomas and two-time Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram on Wednesday certainly lifted the spirits of Ravens supporters who had seen those four defensive departures — as well as starting wide receiver John Brown — sign elsewhere. The exodus was enough to make many wonder if Baltimore was even entering a rebuilding period to better position itself for future seasons by preserving salary cap space and 2020 compensatory picks, but signing one of the NFL’s best defensive players over the last decade was a clear sign that expectations remain high for the coming season.

The truth is DeCosta made difficult decisions that may still hurt the Ravens in the short term. There’s no losing such a high level of leadership, football intellect, and institutional knowledge from Suggs and Weddle without there being some void, even with the latter being replaced by a better individual player. Mosley and Smith ultimately received more money than Baltimore was willing to pay, but you don’t just brush off losing one of the NFL’s best inside linebackers and the team’s best pass rusher without preparing for potential growing pains. The organization expected to keep Suggs and tried to retain Mosley, so it would be silly to dismiss those departures as no big deal when the Ravens certainly didn’t feel that way.

At the same time, it was no secret the second half of last season brought the awkward juxtaposition of the start of the Lamar Jackson era and the potential last ride for several veterans and players in the final year of their contract. In his first offseason as general manager, DeCosta had the salary cap space to keep both Weddle and Suggs around for one more run, but what were the odds they would even maintain their 2018 level of play at their respective ages? The Ravens certainly could have been more proactive in signing Mosley to a extension — and could have even used the franchise tag — long before the New York Jets made him an $85 million offer on Monday, but DeCosta understood the risks of allowing it to get to that point.

And let’s not forget the Ravens own only one playoff victory in the last six years. Beyond the understandable sentimentality and appreciation fans felt for one of the franchise’s all-time greats in Suggs. DeCosta wasn’t exactly busting up a Super Bowl team in the same way Ozzie Newsome had in 2002 and 2013.

The 2018 defense was greater than the sum of its parts, but duplicating that same degree of on-field success with the status quo would have been difficult, especially with Smith’s departure that was always expected. Thomas’ arrival not only helps fill a leadership void, but he brings greater play-making ability in the secondary.

And while he and Ingram alone do not guarantee improved chances of winning a Super Bowl than a year ago, they are the first additions of an offseason more intriguing than anything we’ve seen from the Ravens in several years.

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