Ravens keep J. Johnson to fill void Thomas left

On the day Adalius Thomas finalized his lucrative deal with the New England Patriots, the Ravens landed his replacement at outside linebacker, re-signing his backup, Jarret Johnson, to a three-year, $13 million contract.

Johnson becomes the first player signed by the Ravens in free agency, stopping the run of departures from the AFC North champions.


The anticipated next step - and possibly last major free-agent move for the Ravens - is re-signing running back Jamal Lewis. They likely will try to reach a one-year deal with Lewis over the next couple of days before looking at other options.

Running back, offensive tackle and fullback are the remaining holes in the starting lineup for the Ravens, who rebounded from losing three starters (Thomas, offensive tackle Tony Pashos and fullback Ovie Mughelli) on the first day of free agency by bringing back Johnson.


While Thomas got a five-year contract - worth $37.5 million, including $24 million in the first three seasons, according to the NFL's Web site - the Ravens got excellent value in keeping Johnson, one of the top sleepers in this year's free-agent class.

"I'm excited," Johnson said yesterday from Alabama. "I was a little worried because there was a period of time when I was preparing myself to leave. But everything worked out."

A valuable and underrated backup, Johnson will be the only new starter for a defense that finished first in the NFL last season.

The hope is Johnson could follow Bart Scott as another longtime backup who flourishes in a starting role. Known for his grit and high motor, Johnson has led all Ravens backups in tackles the past two seasons.

Johnson, 25, a fourth-round pick in 2003, acknowledged being nervous about his chances of coming back to the Ravens because the team hadn't initiated serious negotiations until free agency began.

"[This contract] just goes to show how confident they are in you," Johnson said. "You always know they like you. But when they come out and show it to you, it's a nice compliment."

Like Thomas - though not necessarily in the same class - Johnson found a niche in the defense with his versatility. Whenever the Ravens had a starter go down at defensive end, outside linebacker or inside linebacker, they would promote the 6-foot-3, 270-pound Johnson into the lineup.

Now, Johnson doesn't have to be the Ravens' utility backup any longer.


"That's a big thing. I can focus on one job," Johnson said. "I enjoyed what I did before, but this is exciting."

The Ravens had an opening at linebacker because they decided not to use the franchise tag on Thomas.

Thomas' deal with the Patriots reportedly includes between $15 million and $20 million in guaranteed money.

"The money did play a role, but I am going into my eighth year and you want a chance to win a championship," Thomas said. "I thought this was the best place to win a championship."

Leading up to free agency, it was assumed that Thomas would reunite with former Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who is now the San Francisco 49ers' head coach.

But 36 hours into free agency, Thomas signed with New England on his first and only visit.


"We knew what we were looking for - a chance to win, a great organization, and I think New England called and gave us all the things we were looking for," Thomas said. "I came up here and everything fit. There was no need trying to look for something else. We didn't want to drag this out into a circus. We wanted to come in and get to business."

Meanwhile, the Ravens are expected to shift their focus to Lewis.

Although there have been reports about the Ravens showing interest in signing free agent Corey Dillon or trading for Buffalo's Willis McGahee, the Ravens' preference still appears to be Lewis.

If Lewis can't be re-signed early this week, the Ravens might explore other options at running back. Dillon could fill the Ravens' need at the right price. But it could be tough to swing a deal for McGahee because he would want an extension.

The Ravens have limited cap room after entering free agency $11 million under the cap. The signing of Johnson as well as the contracts tendered to their restricted and exclusive-rights free agents may have cut their available cap space in half.

The Ravens could address their needs at offensive tackle and fullback with a low-end free agent or through the draft.


Note -- The 49ers signed Aubrayo Franklin, a backup nose tackle for the Ravens last season. He agreed to a three-year, $6 million contract with $3 million guaranteed and will compete for a starting job in San

Free agency

The Ravens' scorecard so far in free agency:

Players lost

LB Adalius Thomas, Patriots

Five-year contract, $37.5 million


OT Tony Pashos, Jaguars

Five years, $24 million, including $10 million signing bonus

FB Ovie Mughelli, Falcons

Six years, $18 million, including $5 million signing bonus

DT Aubrayo Franklin, 49ers

Three years, $6 million with $3 million guaranteed


Player retained

LB Jarret Johnson

Three years, $13 million

Player cut

RB Jamal Lewis

Ravens want to re-sign him