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.