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Ravens' 5-year deal with Brandon Williams caps busy start to free agency

Brandon Williams' re-signing caps a big first day of free agency for Ravens.

A player exodus on day one of free agency has become an annual rite of March for the Ravens, who traditionally are relatively quiet when the market opens in favor of a more measured approach.

But less than an hour into the start of free agency Thursday, the Ravens had finalized deals with two players and made sure that two others will stick around for 2017. And by day's end, they checked off their biggest priority of all.

The Ravens reached an agreement in principle with standout nose tackle Brandon Williams, bringing back the cog of their run defense on a five-year deal. With a reported five-year, $54 million contract that includes $27.5 million guaranteed, Williams easily surpasses the New York Giants' Damon Harrison (five years for $46.25 million with $24 million guaranteed) as the highest-paid nose tackle in the sport.

Williams' agreement capped an eventful and successful first day of free agency for the Ravens. The Ravens also secured arguably the top safety on the free-agent market for the second straight year, agreeing to a four-year, $36 million deal with former Arizona Cardinal Tony Jefferson. The $9 million per year on Jefferson's deal makes him the sixth-highest-paid safety in the NFL and comes a year after the Ravens signed Eric Weddle to a four-year, $26 million pact.

Veteran running back Danny Woodhead, one of the league's top pass catchers out of the backfield, was added on a three-year deal. The move made even more sense when the league announced Thursday that second-year Ravens back Kenneth Dixon will be suspended for the first four games of 2017 for violating the league's performance-enhancing-drug policy.

The Ravens re-signed backup quarterback Ryan Mallett, who said he was "excited to get back to work with my teammates and coaches to help us compete for an AFC North championship." Mallett got a one-year deal worth $2 million.

They then made sure that one of starting quarterback Joe Flacco's top weapons will return for a second season with the Ravens.

After his 1,000-yard season, wide receiver Mike Wallace had his $5.75 million option for 2017 picked up before Thursday's 4 p.m. deadline. The decision seemingly became a formality earlier in the day when Torrey Smith opted to sign a three-year, $15 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles rather than rejoin his former team. Smith spoke to Ravens officials earlier in the week, but it's unclear how close the two sides came to a reunion.

Williams, though, was the clear headliner, and there was plenty of anxiety leading into free agency that the Ravens might be priced out of his market. However, the financial commitment they made — the figures of the contract were first reported by NFL Network — suggests the team was determined to keep Williams at all costs.

A third-round draft pick out of Missouri Southern in 2013, Williams became a full-time starter in 2014 and has not missed a game in his past three seasons in Baltimore despite regularly dealing with double teams in the trenches.

In parts of four seasons with the Ravens, Williams has 156 total tackles, 41/2 sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. With Williams occupying the middle the past three seasons, the Ravens ranked fourth against the run in 2014, 12th in 2015 and fifth last season.

Williams' deal doesn't leave the Ravens with much salary cap space and they still have plenty of other needs. Tight end Dennis Pitta and safety Lardarius Webb are two players in jeopardy as the Ravens work to create more flexibility.

Seeking to add depth at cornerback, the Ravens have legitimate interest in Dallas Cowboys free agent Morris Claiborne, according to sources. Claiborne, the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft out of LSU, has battled injuries throughout his career, and played in just seven games in 2016 because of a groin injury. However, the 27-year-old has 43 starts on his resume and was playing at a high level last year before his injury.

The Ravens are still monitoring the pass rusher and inside linebacker market. They have a hole at right tackle with three-year starter Rick Wagner departing in free agency to join the Detroit Lions.

They also are thin at receiver, although picking up Wallace's option was a start. Wallace, 30, led the Ravens last season with 1,017 receiving yards and was second with 72 catches and four touchdown receptions. With five receptions for at least 50 yards, Wallace proved to be the big-play threat the Ravens hoped he'd be when they signed him last March.

The addition of Woodhead should help cover for the extended absence of Dixon and make up for the free-agent loss of fullback Kyle Juszczyk to the San Francisco 49ers. Woodhead, the 5-foot-8, 200-pound back who spent the past four seasons with the San Diego Chargers, played in just two games last season before tearing the ACL in his right knee. He has been limited to just 21 games over the past three seasons.

In a healthy 2015, he caught 80 balls for 755 yards and six touchdowns — numbers that led all running backs — and also had 98 carries for 336 yards and three touchdowns. In 93 career games, he has 503 carries for 2,182 yards and 15 touchdowns and 267 catches for 2,498 yards and 17 scores.

Jefferson was rated the fourth-best safety in the league by Pro Football Focus last season. An undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma, Jefferson started 31 games over four seasons with the Cardinals. He has 277 career tackles, five sacks, 11 passes defended, two interceptions, six forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. His best season was last year as he started 14 of 15 games and had 96 tackles, two sacks and five passes defended.

If there is a concern, Weddle and Jefferson are both considered more strong safety types, who excel closer to the line of scrimmage. However, the Ravens have said several times that they view the two positions as interchangeable. Jefferson is known as a sure-handed tackler and a big hitter. His coverage skills have also improved throughout his career as he has proved to be a tough matchup for tight ends.

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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