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Ravens News 3/14: Ballhawk in route to Baltimore, AFCN battles and more

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Boom! Ravens make their biggest splash ever with Earl Thomas - Jamison Hensley

The Ravens responded on Wednesday by giving a monumental contract to safety Earl Thomas, who received the richest deal for a non-quarterback in the franchise’s 24-year history. There’s a reason Baltimore struck a four-year, $55 million deal with the last remaining member of the “Legion of Boom” in Seattle.

Thomas is a leader. He’s a playmaker and the most feared ball hawk in Baltimore since Ed Reed. He’s a critical first piece in rebuilding the best defense in the league.

The addition of Thomas fills a leadership void. The Ravens had passed the mantle of leader on defense from Ray Lewis to Reed to Suggs. It was supposed to be Mosley’s turn next, but the Ravens weren’t going to break the bank on an inside linebacker. Instead, Thomas becomes the new voice of a defense that has dominated teams for two decades.

Earl Thomas has the ability to make a greater impact on the Ravens fortunes than any other player that was available this offseason. His rare centerfielder skillset should have a beneficial trickle down effect on the run defense and the offense.

Baltimore Ravens free agent outlook: Here are their needs and options to fill them - Aaron Kasinitz

Backup QB

Fueled by coach John Harbaugh’s comments and outside assumptions, two veterans have emerged as the most heavily-discussed options to back up 22-year-old Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson in 2019: Robert Griffin III and Tyrod Taylor.

Taylor’s a target for the Miami Dolphins, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, and he’d have a chance to start in South Florida. Griffin, meanwhile, has not landed in any free agent rumors and said in January he’d like to return to Baltimore to help mentor Jackson, as he did as a third-stringer last season.

All this points to Griffin as the most likely and logic choice for the role. He’d probably come cheap, too.

Outside linebacker

The Ravens lost two outside linebackers this week when Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith agreed to deals with the Cardinals and Packers, respectively. Baltimore probably doesn’t want to hand unestablished backups Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser bigger roles without a training camp battle, so you can expect an addition here.

Most of the top edge rushers in this free agent class have found new homes, but a handful of veteran options remain on the market, including Nick Perry, Vinny Curry, Derrick Morgan and Alex Okafor. Shaquil Barrett, 26, is a younger free agent pass rusher with Baltimore roots.

After Tyrod Taylor signed with the Chargers, re-signing Robert Griffin III will likely be highly prioritized. If the Ravens can fit him under the salary cap, pass rusher Shaquil Barrett would complete the defense.

The Browns May Be AFC North Favorites Now, But the Steelers and Ravens Won’t Go Easily - Andy Benoit

For the Ravens, the foundation is not their front seven personnel, but their complex, disguise- and blitz-oriented defensive scheme. John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale are attack-minded coaches who take pride in teaching men to play multiple positions. This lends an activeness and diversity to the front seven, positioning players to overachieve.

Much of it comes down to executing disguised blitzes, which require a strong secondary. That’s why this part of the roster has not just been maintained, but enhanced. Earl Thomas costs more than predecessor Eric Weddle because Thomas can still run and consistently tackle in space. Like Weddle, he’s a cagey veteran who, along with expensive 2017 free-agent pickup Tony Jefferson, can play either safety spot. (We think of Thomas as a traditional centerfield free safety, which he is, but in his last few years as a Seahawk he got more and more snaps in the box, especially in passing situations, where he could better match up to seam patterns and crossing routes.)

Many of Baltimore’s blitzes come out of zone structures that play out like man-to-man. And so the other key is having corners who can match up to a variety of receivers. That’s why in 2017 the Ravens also drafted Marlon Humphrey in the first round and brought aboard ageless veteran Brandon Carr. In this 2019 offseason, they presumably refused to pay top linebacker C.J. Mosley north of $16 million, but they still decided to keep right corner Jimmy Smith for one more year on a cap number of $15.8 million. They also signed slot specialist Tavon Young to a new three-year, $25.8 million deal. That’s four quality corners and two high-priced safeties for a defense that just let its front seven get depleted. Clearly the Ravens brass believes that as long as this D has talent on the back end, it can win through scheme on the front end.

Correlating with a strong defense is a sound running game, which the Ravens have also invested in, not just by trading Joe Flacco and putting all eggs in Lamar Jackson’s basket, but by signing a classic, stable three-down back in Mark Ingram. Collectively, Baltimore’s 2019 offseason has painted a clear, still-impressive picture.

The upcoming battles between Cleveland and Baltimore present some intriguing player matchups. The Browns will field threatening receivers in Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and David Njoku, but the Ravens counter with the most talented secondary in the league. On the other side of the ball, stout bookend tackles Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. will be tested by Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon.

The overall matchups edge will probably be determined by the additions made later this offseason to bolster each team’s weaknesses - Baltimore’s pass rush and wideout versus Cleveland’s pass blockers and defensive backs.