Ravens continue to overhaul secondary, stay busy at start of free agency

Ravens introduce Jefferson, Woodhead and say goodbye to Webb.

The Ravens' activity early in free agency has been best characterized by two prominent themes — rewarding some of their own free agents and revamping their secondary. Those patterns continued Friday — just hours before the team introduced new starting safety Tony Jefferson, along with running back Danny Woodhead, the Ravens said goodbye to longtime defensive back Lardarius Webb.

The Ravens then completed a deal with reserve safety/special teams ace Anthony Levine Sr. after an afternoon news conference at the Under Armour Performance Center. In a four-day span this week, the Ravens inked Jefferson to a four-year, $36 million deal and re-signed Levine to a three-year pact. They also released cornerback Shareece Wright and safeties Webb and Kendrick Lewis.

More moves to address the secondary could be coming as the Ravens remain in the market for a veteran cornerback. They created more salary cap space late Friday by reworking the contract of tight end Dennis Pitta, increasing the likelihood that one of Joe Flacco's favorite targets will return for the 2017 season.

"We try to acquire good players regardless of position, but we felt like we needed to add to our secondary," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said Friday. "We've been able to get Tony. We still have the opportunity in free agency to address it maybe and we'll be looking forward to the draft to also address it."

Newsome acknowledged it was difficult to make the call to Webb on Friday morning to inform him of his release. Webb was an extremely popular player in the locker room and in the community.

His release, though, seemed inevitable after the team's signing of Jefferson. Webb, who had been the fifth-longest-tenured member of the team behind only Terrell Suggs, Sam Koch, Marshal Yanda and Joe Flacco, was due to make $7.5 million in the final year of his contract. That was far too pricey for a reserve safety. Cutting Webb, 31, created $5.5 million of salary cap space.

It's not out of the question the Ravens try to re-sign him at a significantly reduced rate later this offseason.

"The door is not closed, because we need as many good football players as we can have," Newsome said.

If this is indeed the end for Webb with the Ravens, he had a solid run for a player the team selected in the third round of the 2009 draft out of Nicholls State, and who persevered through two significant knee injuries and a bad back. Entering the NFL as a cornerback, he started 83 games over eight seasons and had 13 interceptions and three return scores (one via an interception, one on a punt return and one on a kickoff return).

He transitioned from cornerback to safety this past season, started all 16 games and finished fourth on the team with 73 tackles. He also had one interception and one sack and was considered one of the defensive leaders.

However, Webb was a victim of advanced age and a high salary cap number. Heading into the offseason, his $7.5 million cap charge for 2017 had been the seventh highest on the team and the ninth highest among NFL safeties. The Ravens wanted to upgrade at the position alongside Eric Weddle, and Jefferson, who played his first four NFL seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, was the highest-ranked safety on the open market.

Weddle, who attended the news conference, helped recruit both Jefferson and Woodhead, his former teammate with the San Diego Chargers.

"These are big investments that we are making. We have high aspirations," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We wanted two players that fit us really well — the kind of guys Baltimore can be proud of and the kind of guys that play the way we like to play. Tony Jefferson is one of those guys, and Danny Woodhead is one of those guys. I say that in the sense that those guys are very rare. Those guys are not playing everywhere around the league. They are perfect fits for us."

Jefferson, a 25-year-old who entered the league as an undrafted free agent and became a starter in the Cardinals' star-studded secondary, got emotional when discussing his new NFL home.

"It has been a long road. I told my mom I would not get emotional up here, but it's not easy," Jefferson said. "I'm so excited to be a Raven. Like Coach Harbaugh said, I think this organization fits me well. This defense — especially with Eric back there — we can do a lot of things. I think that we are going to do a lot of things."

Jefferson turned down more lucrative offers from the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets to join the Ravens because he was attracted by their defensive tradition and how they play "backyard" football. Woodhead, 32, conceded that he "hated" the Ravens after playing them often earlier in his career as a member of the New England Patriots, but he respected what the organization stands for.

"I wanted to come here because I believe in what this organization believes in, and that is winning. That is what my aspirations are," Woodhead said. "I am so excited to be a part of the Raven culture and what it means to be a Raven. I see what it says on the wall — 'Play Like a Raven.' I want to 'play like a Raven,' and I think I'm going to."

Newsome said Woodhead's addition was not a reaction to fellow running back Kenneth Dixon's four-game suspension to start the 2017 season. Rather, the Ravens have prioritized adding playmakers and they believe Woodhead, who led all NFL running backs in receptions in 2015 before missing all but two games last year with a knee injury, will help in both the running game and passing game.

The re-signing of Levine, meanwhile, was aimed at fortifying the special teams units after the loss of core special teamers Zachary Orr to retirement and Kyle Juszczyk to free agency. Kamar Aiken is also a free agent.

Levine, 29, has been one of the Ravens' most trusted special teams players since 2013, serving as a punt protector and also playing a role on the coverage and return teams. He played a team-high 362 special teams snaps last season and also gives defensive coordinator Dean Pees some flexibility with an ability to play cornerback, safety and linebacker.

The Ravens still have work to do. They have needs at wide receiver, along the offensive line, at linebacker and at cornerback. The Webb release and Pitta's reworked deal should help in their efforts to fill a few of those holes before the late April draft.

"We're not done," Newsome said. "I will say that."

The Ravens asked Pitta to take a pay cut last week and the two sides appeared to be at a stalemate before Friday's agreement. He was due to make $5.5 million in each of the final two years of his deal. The details of his revised contract aren't immediately known.

Pitta led the Ravens and all NFL tight ends with 86 receptions last year after he missed the entire 2015 season and played in seven combined games in 2013 and 2014 because of a twice fractured and dislocated right hip.

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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