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Five Things We Learned from the end of Earl Thomas III’s Ravens career

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh would not expand on the release of All-Pro safety Earl Thomas from the team.

Earl Thomas III’s marriage with the Ravens had soured to the point where they saw no option for repair. From that to the roster uncertainty created by the Pro Bowl safety’s release, here are five things we learned from the end of his 17-month run in Baltimore.

The Ravens would not have moved so decisively to release Earl Thomas III if they felt they had another choice.

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The Ravens have built their identity on deliberate decision making. Think of owner Steve Bisciotti sticking with coach John Harbaugh when the franchise hit a pre-Lamar Jackson rut. Or former general manager Ozzie Newsome insistently building from within rather than chasing the next shiny free agent.

Sometimes, the Ravens have acted methodically to their own detriment. Recall their decision to stand by Ray Rice for months before video emerged of the Pro Bowl running back striking his fiancee in an Atlantic City casino.

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So history tells us they would not have abruptly created a hole in their Super Bowl-quality roster if they saw a constructive way to move forward with Thomas, the greatest safety of the past 10 years.

We can deduce that the decision was not, in fact, abrupt, that Thomas arrived for his second training camp in Baltimore already on shaky ground. We know some of the possible reasons — the distance teammates felt from him, the perception that Thomas operated by his own set of rules. But we don’t know the extent of Thomas’ disconnects with his teammates and coaches.

Harbaugh shed no light Sunday, sticking to the team’s statement that Thomas had been released for “personal conduct that has adversely affected the Baltimore Ravens.”

The Ravens coach did not treat the fight that broke out between Thomas and fellow safety Chuck Clark as a potential catastrophe when he spoke to reporters in the immediate aftermath Friday. As he noted, such flare-ups are common in training camp, if less so among players in the same position group.

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So when Thomas was sent home later that afternoon, it was clear his actions had tapped into some deeper vein of discontent. He probably did not help matters when he explained himself on Instagram on Saturday with a post featuring video of the Ravens working out 11-on-11. But his release was already a strong possibility at that point. It’s hard to imagine the team would have sent him away in the first place if fences seemed likely to be mended.

Some combination of the team’s front-office executives, coaches and locker-room leaders had already decided they could not trust Thomas. Such an emphatic move does not flow from one practice scuffle, not with a player of Thomas’ stature and not with a team that operates as the Ravens have for the last 24 years.

They decided they’d have a better chance to win the Super Bowl without a Pro Bowl free safety who looked supremely fit to start training camp. They decided to eat at least $15 million in dead cap money just to get rid of him. That tells us all we need to know about how badly the marriage had soured.

Make no mistake, the Ravens will miss Thomas as a player.

A decent segment of Baltimore fans never warmed to Thomas after his arrival from Seattle. His critics focused on a few plays — the 88-yard touchdown run by Nick Chubb on which he pulled up, the stiff arms he ate from Derrick Henry after he talked trash before the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans — to suggest a lack of commitment or a severe slip in athleticism from the big-ticket free agent.

And it’s true that Thomas took a while to acclimate to an unfamiliar role in Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense, that he did not make as many interceptions (two for the 2019 season) or memorable hits as he would have liked. To a fan base spoiled by Ed Reed’s once-in-a-lifetime exploits as a big-play safety, he seemed rather ordinary.

But let’s not underestimate Thomas’ very real contributions to one of the league’s best pass defenses. He played almost every meaningful snap of the 2019 season and was rarely caught out of position in coverage. Whether you look at Pro Football Focus grades or Pro Football Reference statistics measuring the damage done against Thomas, the conclusion is the same: He was still an intelligent, mobile asset on the back end.

By all accounts, he showed up for the 2020 season prepared to play as well or better. Martindale talked about how quick he looked compared with the previous summer, when he was still recovering from the broken leg that ended his tenure in Seattle. In his Instagram post Saturday, Thomas said he was having one of his best training camps.

No, Thomas will probably never return to the form that made him a centerpiece for Seattle’s famed “Legion of Boom” defense. But the Ravens don’t have a comparable replacement waiting in the wings. For a team built to contend right now, this decision stings.

Thomas’ release is easier to absorb because of the Ravens’ unusual depth of talent.

Not many teams can release a Pro Bowl player for off-field reasons and lose little ground in expectations for the upcoming season. But don’t expect to see those Super Bowl predictions vanish just because Thomas is no longer in the fold.

The Ravens still have two Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey. They still have a good young strong safety in Clark (whose breakout last season was actually forecast by Thomas’ raves about his intelligence), one of the league’s best-paid slot corners in Tavon Young and a fit Jimmy Smith ready to fill multiple roles.

And that’s just in the secondary. Their front seven, anchored by new addition Calais Campbell, is more imposing than the 2019 edition. Their first-round pick, Patrick Queen, looks ready to make plays right away at middle linebacker.

Martindale has plenty of potent elements to play with as he reprises his mad scientist act for a third season. Not to mention the Ravens offense is formidable enough to make the playoffs even if paired with an average defense.

As outside linebacker Matthew Judon said last week, the Ravens have one make-or-break player, and that’s Jackson.

DeShon Elliott is gifted enough to thrive in an expanded role, but his resume is thin.

Elliott, the 2018 sixth-round pick, has been a summer standout for the Ravens, flashing optimal size and speed and carrying himself with a swagger befitting a more accomplished player. Secondary coach Chris Hewitt described him as “a confident young man. Sometimes too confident.”

But the fact is, Elliott has played just six games in two seasons because of injuries, and the Ravens don’t know exactly what they’ll get if they slot him in for Thomas.

Clark, by comparison, had played more than five times as many games when he stepped in for the injured Tony Jefferson last season.

“It’s his time,” Harbaugh said Sunday, seeming to indicate Elliott will get every chance to earn a starting role.

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The Ravens generally like to keep their starting safeties on the field for almost every snap. But given Elliott’s lack of experience, they might consider more of a committee approach. They’ve talked about using Smith at safety, for example, and Harbaugh noted the veteran cornerback has already worked there during training camp. Rookie Geno Stone, regarded as a seventh-round steal after a productive career in coverage at Iowa, could also push for playing time.

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The money the Ravens recoup from voiding Thomas’ contract ($6 million of a guaranteed $10 million salary if he files a grievance, as many observers expect) would also give them increased flexibility to pursue outside help at safety if they find an appealing option.

It’s difficult to render a clear verdict on the Thomas decision when we don’t know all the facts.

Generally speaking, it makes sense to exhaust every option before moving on from a player as good as Thomas without receiving any value in return.

If this was just about a practice scuffle or a few missed meetings, we might say the Ravens acted hastily. But the franchise holds an excellent reputation around the league for a reason. Its leaders have rarely rushed into misguided personnel decisions, and they’ve managed long-term relationships with plenty of strong-willed, eccentric personalities.

Reed, the franchise’s measuring stick at safety, marched to his own drummer. But he was also a wise, caring teammate with a strong grasp of the big picture. So he and Harbaugh worked past periodic conflicts. Other intense individuals such as Anquan Boldin and Steve Smith Sr. put their stamp on the Ravens without alienating those around them.

Thomas’ relationship with the franchise differed from those of past stars. How, exactly, we can only hint at until further details emerge. But his former Ravens teammates have not flocked to his defense. He’s spoken for himself from the same solitary island he seemed to occupy for much of his 17-month tenure in Baltimore.

Thomas could go to a team such as the Dallas Cowboys, make another Pro Bowl and find himself right back on the Super Bowl trail. If that happens and the Ravens struggle to sort out their secondary, some will say they erred. But without knowing exactly what risk Thomas posed to their culture, it will be difficult to judge for sure.

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