Replacing Thomas not quite as simple as Ravens’ statement letting him go

August 23, 2020 | Luke Jones

Nine simple words covered everything John Harbaugh was going to say explaining why the Ravens terminated the contract of seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas on Sunday.

Personal conduct that has adversely affected the Baltimore Ravens.

With a grievance surely to come over the $10 million salary that was set to be guaranteed before Thomas’ Friday fight with fellow starting safety Chuck Clark and other reported issues leading to a four-year, $55 million contract crumbling in only 18 months, Harbaugh wasn’t about to say anything that would compromise the organization’s case. He instead deferred to the one-sentence statement announcing the roster move shortly before the Ravens practiced at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

“I’m good. We’re good,” said Harbaugh even when asked about the contributions made by Thomas in his lone season in Baltimore. “Moving forward. Eyes all ahead. Eyes ahead.”

So, how do the Ravens go about replacing Thomas three weeks before kicking off a new season against Cleveland?

It’s not quite as simple as those nine words.

To be clear, the 31-year-old’s departure hardly ruins the chances of one of the consensus Super Bowl favorites entering 2020, especially considering the way he was testing a winning team culture. Thomas was still a good player for whom opponents accounted despite some early hiccups in his lone year with the Ravens, but he hardly resembled Ed Reed in his prime or a younger Thomas anchoring the famed “Legion of Boom” secondary that won a Super Bowl in Seattle. One could fairly ask whether Thomas truly played like a $14 million per year safety, further making his contract the first substantial flop in the otherwise immaculate start to Eric DeCosta’s run as general manager.

For now, the Ravens appear ready to give the starting spot to DeShon Elliott, a third-year safety popular with many defensive teammates who had run out of patience with the mercurial Thomas. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Elliott looks the part from an athleticism standpoint and has flashed potential, but injuries in his first two seasons — a broken forearm in 2018 and a serious knee injury last year — have limited him to just 40 defensive snaps and six games in his career, making it difficult to truly know what to expect.

“He’s been practicing really well,” Harbaugh said. “He’s worked hard all through the offseason, and it’s his time. So, here we go.”

The Ravens will hope Elliott can follow in the footsteps of another former sixth-round pick in Clark, who proved to be an upgrade after Tony Jefferson suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 last year. Not only did Clark play at a legitimate starter level — Thomas ironically quipped last year that he wondered why Baltimore had even signed him after seeing what Clark could do — but he took over the play-calling duties in the defensive huddle, something with which the Baltimore defense struggled early last season.

The difference is Clark had shown the availability — only one missed game in his career — and the potential to play at a high level with two successful starts for the injured Jefferson in 2018 and more than 300 defensive snaps over his first two seasons. Nicknamed the “Joker” at the University of Texas, Elliott is much more of a wild card now.

It’s certainly not ideal for a team with all eyes on a Super Bowl run this coming season.

But in the same way coordinator Wink Martindale has moved away from rigid position defense, the Ravens won’t view replacing Thomas as a 1-for-1 trade-off, instead continuing to use deception and versatility to their advantage.

With slot cornerback Tavon Young back on the field after missing 2019 with a neck injury, the Ravens have been cross-training veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith at the safety position as they did with Brandon Carr in previous summers. Smith has looked comfortable covering tight ends and dropping into deeper coverage after playing almost exclusively as an outside cornerback throughout his career. His versatility could keep opponents guessing as to whether the Ravens are using a traditional dime package or going with more of a four-corner look in certain situations.

Anthony Levine was already in the mix in certain sub packages while veteran Jordan Richards and rookies Geno Stone and Nigel Warrior will also try to make the 53-man roster and factor into a re-calibrated back-end equation.

“I like the guys we have. The young guys are practicing. We’ll see how they do,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll just do what we always do; we’ll put the best players we have out there. We’ll prepare them and get ready to go play. If other players turn up, then we’ll get those guys ready to go play.

“It’s nothing different. This is how it goes whether it’s a personnel change or an injury or anything that might come up.”

Viewing Thomas’ departure like an injury is the best strategy from an on-field standpoint, especially when he was apparently hurting the Ravens so much in other ways. Baltimore still has more than enough talent in the secondary to be one of the league’s best defenses, but replacing Thomas the player won’t be as easy as replacing the person.

A Super Bowl contender with very few questions entering training camp created a substantial one with Sunday’s simple statement.