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For DeShon Elliott and talented Ravens defense, championships come before contracts | ANALYSIS

"I feel like now it's my job to step up and help try to lead this defense, lead this team, so hopefully I can do that," said Elliott on being a leader.

Two weeks into training camp, the Ravens defense is again looking like one of the NFL’s best, with Pro Bowl talents or first-round picks at all three levels, impressive depth behind them and a mad-scientist coordinator calling the shots.

And if Don “Wink” Martindale had to field a defense with just players entering their final contract year? Well, that wouldn’t be too bad, either.

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Up front he could start linemen Brandon Williams, Justin Ellis and Calais Campbell. Behind them, inside linebackers L.J. Fort and Chris Board. On the edge, outside linebackers Justin Houston and Pernell McPhee. In the secondary, cornerbacks Anthony Averett and Jimmy Smith and safeties DeShon Elliott and Anthony Levine Sr. or Jordan Richards.

It is not a Super Bowl-caliber walk-year defense, but its depth and star power are testament enough to the roster flexibility that quarterback Lamar Jackson’s rookie contract has enabled in Baltimore — and a reminder of the tough choices on the horizon. Jackson has just a $3 million salary cap hit in 2021, less than 2% of the NFL’s $182.5 million cap. Jackson’s number is set to rise to $23 million in 2022. A franchise-record contract extension could double that figure in the coming years.

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With Jackson due for a megadeal and tight end Mark Andrews’s appointment not far behind, the Ravens’ pay scale paradigm will have to change before long. In the NFL, bargain bin units appreciate in value quickly. But it’s a defense of aging veterans, fourth-year players and everything in between whose play this season could most pay off.

“We’re too talented; we’re deep,” Campbell said last month. “This team is just set up perfectly to make a run. Now, obviously, it’s hard to do, and every team wants it. There are other teams out there that have got just as much talent and great players, as well, so it’s going to be a battle, but there’s no excuse. We have everything it takes, and so it really comes down to execution, taking it one day at a time and earning the right.”

Campbell, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, has acknowledged that his end is near. He said in June that he wouldn’t rule out retiring after his 14th NFL season — “I know that I’ve got this year in me, for sure” — and last year missed four games for the first time in his career. Campbell is also just eight sacks away from a personal milestone: 100.

Next to him on the line is a Ravens lifer. Drafted in 2013, Brandon Williams has played in 110 games over eight seasons and is entering the final year of a long-polarizing contract extension. But 330-plus-pound nose tackles rarely age gracefully, and the league’s passing trends might have the Ravens looking for a more dynamic pass rusher to pair with Justin Madubuike and Derek Wolfe inside.

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There are other stalwarts to consider, too. Levine, 34, known fondly around the team facility as “Co-Cap,” is “a core part” of this team, Elliott said Tuesday, and a special teams staple. McPhee, who turns 33 in December, started 13 games last season at outside linebacker and is another of the team’s respected veterans. Fort, 32 in January, is entering his third year in Baltimore, where he’s started 16 games and set career highs for production. Smith, who just turned 33, was one of the NFL’s top-rated cornerbacks last season before injuries derailed him late in the year.

Maybe most interesting, though, are the team’s younger players. Elliott, entering his second year as a starter in a loaded secondary, is the Ravens defender best poised to play his way into a rich second contract, be it in Baltimore or elsewhere. After a solid 2020, the former sixth-round pick has taken his understanding of coverages and presnap reads to “another level,” coach John Harbaugh said Saturday. He is playing faster and processing better.

“That money’s going to come,” Elliott said Tuesday. “I’m not worried about that money. I’m worried about the Super Bowl and playing with my guys. That money’s going to come. I don’t play this game for the money. I play this game for football. I love football. Of course, there’s other things that come with it. And if God’s blessed me to get the opportunity, then of course [I’ll consider it], you know what I’m saying?”

This season could be an inflection point for Elliott and contributors like him. Overall, nine Ravens defenders in their contract’s final year played at least 25% of the team’s defensive snaps in 2020, and another three — Levine, Richards and Board — were among the team leaders in special teams snaps.

Houston, signed last week, played 59% of the Indianapolis Colts’ defensive snaps last year. Fellow outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson, whose training camp performance has left him on the roster bubble, got 28% of the Ravens’ snaps in his second year. Tavon Young is entrenched as the Ravens’ top slot cornerback and signed through 2022, but another injury could lead the front office to part ways next offseason.

Attrition is a matter of course in every NFL offseason, and whether Jackson signs a new deal or not, the Ravens will have the flexibility under an expanded salary cap to bring back key veterans. A potentially big draft haul — the team’s projected to receive three compensatory picks next year — gives them another path to rebuild on the cheap.

However Ravens players see their future, they know there’s only so much they can control now. Training camp is not the place to worry about what comes next offseason, not when the season is still a month away.

“I try not to be comfortable,” said running back Gus Edwards, who in June signed a two-year extension through 2023 worth $9 million. “The only thing that changes is the coaches; they know what I can do now. And it’s about being consistent now. If anything, it puts a lot more pressure on me. I’ve got to prove myself.”

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