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Overlooked and castoffs: meet the Ravens new-look defense

Baltimore’s defensive unit is full of players with chips on their shoulders.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When free agency began, the Ravens quickly saw several snap leaders and starters from their #1 ranked defense depart for new teams. Terrell Suggs signed with the Cardinals, C.J. Mosley agreed to record-breaking terms with the New York Jets, and Za’Darius Smith signed with the Packers.

There’s Eric Weddle, too, who was released by the team and quickly landed on his feet with the Los Angeles Rams. The losses of these four players, all of which played significant roles on defense last year, caused panic to quickly set in among the Baltimore fanbase. Some even went as far as to begin calling for Eric DeCosta to step down on Twitter.

DeCosta and company stayed the course, however, and weathered the initial storm of the free agency frenzy. While their defense will evidently have a different look next season, the Ravens have retooled by putting together a collection of players that all have one thing in common: they have chips on their shoulders and are eager to make a statement.

Let’s start with Earl Thomas, the Ravens prized free agent acquisition. Thomas, is a six-time Pro Bowler and has been selected to multiple All-Pro teams. He’s arguably one of the greatest Seattle Seahawks players in franchise history. Even so, the Seahawks were reluctant to give him a new contract last season.

Thomas wanted another long-term deal but the two sides couldn’t gain any traction in the offseason. After initially holding out in training camp and preseason, Thomas suited up for the first four weeks of the season before suffering a broken leg. Nobody can forget the infamous picture of him flashing an obscene gesture, “flicking off” to be specific, towards the Seahawks sideline has he was carted off the field in Arizona.

And thus is how the once healthy relationship between the Seahawks and Thomas came to a conclusion. After an ugly split between the two sides, Thomas will be eager to prove Seattle and other doubters wrong. By making a full recovery from his leg injury and performing at a high level in Baltimore, Thomas can show that he still has plenty left in the tank and the Seahawks made a mistake by refusing to give him his money.

Then, there’s Jaylon Ferguson, the Ravens third-round selection. Many experts and analysts had Ferguson ranked as a first or second round talent, and yet he nearly slipped into the fourth round. Can this be attributed to subpar athletic testing? Sure, at least somewhat. But many teams were likely drawn off Ferguson due to off-the-field issues.

Ferguson was charged with public intoxication and battery in college, the latter of which caused the NFL to rescind his invitation to the scouting combine. The Ravens view him as high-character individual, which other teams apparently weren't so sure of. You can bet Ferguson will be looking to prove them wrong and show that his historic college production will translate to the NFL.

Also looking to make statements are the Ravens two most recent signees, Pernell McPhee and Shane Ray. McPhee’s performance has somewhat fallen flat after a strong start to his career with the Ravens. After recording 7.5 sacks in 2014, McPhee signed a five-year deal with the Chicago Bears. They released him after just three seasons, however, and McPhee made a minimal impact in Washington last year after signing with the Redskins.

Now, McPhee finds himself back in Baltimore, where he played the best years of his career. McPhee will be tasked with replacing, at least somewhat, Za’Darius Smith, who the Ravens ironically drafted to be McPhee’s replacement several years ago. It would appear that McPhee’s best playing days are behind him at age 30, but he finds himself in a position to succeed back with the Ravens.

Shane Ray is a former first-round pick, as he was selected #23 overall by the Denver Broncos in 2015. After a productive start to his career in which he posted 12 sacks in his first 30 games, Ray’s production was hampered by injury trouble over the past two seasons. Ray underwent three different surgeries to address wrist injuries in two years and it limited him to 19 games of action. Ray only posted one sack in 2017 and one sack in 2018.

Despite investing a first-round pick in him, the Broncos were content with letting Ray walk in free agency. Now, Ray has landed on his feet in Baltimore and has a great chance to rekindle the productivity of his first two seasons in the league. There’s a reason he was a first-round pick - Ray possesses a talented skill set and adept athletic ability. He’ll be looking to show Denver that they made a mistake by giving up on him too quickly.

You can bet someone like Gerald Willis III has a chip on his shoulder too. Many saw the former Miami product as a mid-round talent but he slipped out of the draft. The Ravens scooped him up from the undrafted free agent pool and Willis III will have to claw his way to make the 53-man roster. Going undrafted is usually a cause for increased motivation.

The situations in which these players came from are unique, but in some way, shape, or form, they were all overlooked or unwanted by other teams. The Ravens weren’t hesitant to take chances on them, however, and it could pay dividends next year.

With hungry players looking to make big statements, the notion that Baltimore’s defense is suddenly going to drop off next season seems like a risky proposition to bet on.