The Ravens have always made a point of investing long-term dollars to keep essential homegrown players, from Ray Lewis to Haloti Ngata to Joe Flacco.
In March, nose tackle Brandon Williams became the latest member of that exclusive club, signing a five-year, $52.5 million, with $27.5 million guaranteed.
Williams, 28, might seem an unusual addition to a group that includes future Hall of Famers, Super Bowl MVPs and multiyear All-Pros. He was a third-round draft pick out of Missouri Southern and has just 4½ sacks to his name in four seasons. He plays one of the least glamorous positions in the league, and the closest he has come to the Pro Bowl was a second-alternate selection after last season.
Yet, in an offseason when they also signed safety Tony Jefferson and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, the Ravens made their biggest splurge to hold on to the 6-foot-1, 340-pound fireplug at the heart of their No. 5 run defense.
For linebacker Terrell Suggs, dean of the Ravens defense, the answer lies 275 miles north of Baltimore, where all-world running back Le'Veon Bell takes handoffs for the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers.
"You definitely want a run-stopping nose guard to help you with one of the premier backs in the league," Suggs said. "This organization is great with keeping Ravens as Ravens. Brandon Williams has proved himself. It's good to have a Raven stay a Raven."
For coach John Harbaugh, the reason is even simpler. He expects Williams to be "a dominant player, flat-out."
It's not as if the Ravens shocked the world by spending big on their mammoth nose tackle. ESPN ranked him the No. 1 free agent in the league at the beginning of the offseason. And Williams would have received a substantial deal somewhere else if the Ravens hadn't made an aggressive offer.
But the sweet-natured Missouri native understands that with the contract comes a new level of responsibility. Williams wants to become a more versatile player who pressures opposing quarterbacks regularly, more akin to a prime Ngata than a pure run stuffer.
Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees could create more pass-rushing opportunities for Williams by regularly playing him in tandem with Michael Pierce and lining him up at defensive tackle instead of over the center.
"It's kind of hard to be a pass rusher on third down if you're not in the game," Pees said. "But I think he's a guy that can push the pocket. He's got some quick twitch. If all of a sudden they try and go one-on-one on him thinking this guy can't pass rush, he's got some power. He'll push the pocket back there on the quarterback. I think we've got to use those guys maybe a little more than what we've done in the past."
Williams is now the old hand on a young defensive line, a source of counsel to fresh-faced teammates. And he's a public face of the franchise, the guy the Ravens trotted out just before Suggs to talk to the media on the first day of training camp.
Williams looked like the same guy, grinning widely and wearing a purple t-shirt with cut-off sleeves that showed off the most gobsmacking biceps on the team. But the dude who once hefted portable toilets to make extra money in the summer and who survived a frightening bout with spinal meningitis in college is a fully minted NFL star.
"Now, I have to prove my worth," Williams said. "I want to go out there and be my best, the best player that I can be for this team. At the same time, I don't want to make it too big for myself, because that's when you start overthinking and trying to do too much, instead of just playing your game. Football is football. I just want to be the best football player for my team, however I can, wherever they need me. I also just want to bring up the rookies and be the best leader that I can be. I definitely take what Haloti and Chris [Canty] instilled in me me as a rookie and just kind of put that to the test and put someone under my wing."
In a sense, Williams' evolution is a validation of the franchise's entire draft and development apparatus. General manager Ozzie Newsome prides himself on finding NFL starters from out-of-the-way schools, and he has always had a particularly sharp eye for defensive linemen. Add to that Williams' unselfish nature and emotional connection to the people around him, and you see why Newsome said "the whole building was lifted up" when he signed his new deal.
Williams' ascent in the Ravens' hierarchy comes after a momentous time in his off-field life. On July 1, he donned a white tuxedo jacket to marry longtime girlfriend, Alyssa Karel. The couple, who have two children, honeymooned in Greece, and Williams then traveled to London for a promotional tour ahead of the Ravens' trip to play in England this fall.
"A lot of stuff happened this year, for the better," he said. "It was awesome. It was a very momentous year, but now it's time for football, time to grind."
Music to his teammates' ears, no doubt. They understand how essential Williams is to a defense that some in the organization believe could be historically good. Even if he's not making tackles, he occupies multiple blockers, clearing space for playmakers such as C.J. Mosley and Eric Weddle to speed to the ball unimpeded. It's an honored role in the history of the team, the same one Sam Adams played on the record-setting Ravens defense of 2000.
Call it grunt work if you will, but there's a reason it's well-compensated grunt work.
"It's just nice to have a true nose guard," Weddle said. "[There's] more on Brandon's plate, getting that extension and knowing what to expect out of him. He's got to be the best in the league, and he knows that. It shows every day by his work and how he practices. We expect to be one of the top run defenses in the league and top defenses. Anything short of that is unsuccessful and won't be tolerated as a group. That's the focus."
Make no mistake, Williams has already established himself as a steady force. He started all 16 games each of the past two seasons, and the Ravens have the No. 3 run defense in the league since he entered the regular lineup in 2014. Pro Football Focus graded him the team's best overall defender in 2015.
It's just that he believes he, and the defense overall, will take another step forward.
"I'm going to be honest," the newest inner-circle Raven said. "I think our defense is going to be something really special."