In the 'chess match' of free agency, Ravens struck fast to win over Earl Thomas

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Asked for a scouting report on his new Ravens teammate, running back Mark Ingram II offered this about Earl Thomas: “You’ve got to know where 29’s at.”

But the safety who has willed himself into the NFL’s elite by knowing where everyone on the field is and just how to reach them acknowledged Friday he did not expect to land in Baltimore. The four-year, $55 million deal he signed Wednesday was “last minute,” he said. Until the flurry of Ravens activity that yielded the two players who were introduced Friday, the former Seattle Seahawks star said he didn’t expect the Ravens “to even give me a chance.”


Until, like the ball hawk that he is, they “swooped in.”

“I think you have to stay flexible and you have to adjust and juggle a lot of different balls at the same time,” general manager Eric DeCosta said at Friday’s news conference with the two new signings and coach John Harbaugh. “We've got good relationships with the agents, we've got good relationships with a lot of different people, and we saw an opportunity, and we made a move. And it was a great move.”


With the moving pieces of free agency — salary cap considerations, compensatory draft picks, available players, positional depth — it was hard to draw a through line between whom the Ravens lost and whom they gained in free agency.

On Monday night, it was Terrell Suggs, off to the Arizona Cardinals. “Definitely didn't see that one coming,” Harbaugh said. “I mean, that was really a surprise.”

On Tuesday morning, it was C.J. Mosley signing with the New York Jets on the richest-ever contract for an inside linebacker. “C.J. was hard,” Harbaugh said, “but then he has an opportunity to take care of his family in such a way that is just incredible and amazing.”

Then it was Za’Darius Smith, another pass rusher gone. At least that was expected. “Who saw this coming for Za'Darius?” Harbaugh said of the new Green Bay Packer. “And, well, you know what, we did. Za'Darius and I talked about this four years ago when he first came in here.”

A day later, the Ravens felt ready to make the next move in what DeCosta called a “chess match.” The first-year GM’s inclination was to be aggressive. But he’d learned from predecessor Ozzie Newsome that “sometimes if you start early, you lose late.” The safety market had thinned considerably — no Tyrann Mathieu, no Landon Collins, no Adrian Amos.

Still, Thomas, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, was available. And with Mosley off to New York, so was the money for a deal.

“We would've loved to” sign both, said DeCosta, who’d parted ways with safety Eric Weddle a week before the Ravens signed Thomas. “We weren't able to get that done, unfortunately. … I think we're in the business of having the best football players we can, and we want to be aggressive and we want to be creative in getting that done.”

The money helped with both. So did word of mouth. Ingram said "anybody who ever was involved in the Ravens organization that I know" reached out to him, from current receiver Willie Snead IV to former receivers Anquan Boldin to Jacoby Jones.


Thomas’ endorsements were more subtle. The swagger of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis spoke to him. He knew he’d find in Baltimore a defense that might “win you a championship.” He’d won one already with Seattle’s dominant (and since-disassembled) “Legion of Boom.”

“I think Earl is a playmaker, and there’s no greater playmaker in the NFL at safety than Ed,” DeCosta said. “Now, they have maybe different styles in some respects, but both guys can win a game for you. Just going back to Earl coming out [of college], he was one of the fastest, most explosive safeties we’ve seen. His ball skills, the combination of that and his aggressiveness and his ability to play multiple spots make him a unique player.”

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“He can affect the game,” Ingram said. “He’s going to be back deep. He’s going to be down low. He’s going to be filling the run, quick. He’s going to be over the top breaking up posts and seam routes and just around the ball. If something happens, if somebody fumbles, he’s picking it up. If there’s a tipped pass, he’s under it, returning it.”

Harbaugh noted the offense-defense balance in the Ravens’ two signings. They might be useful signposts for the team’s offseason construction. Thomas represents another significant commitment to the team’s pass defense, which already ranked among the league’s best last year.

Ingram, meanwhile, is an added dimension for the team’s backfield, a productive running back who doubles as a receiving threat, something quarterback Lamar Jackson often lacked in his rookie year. The offense’s attractiveness to potential free-agent wide receivers remains unknown; to running backs, a run-heavy scheme might be like catnip.

“I’m excited about it, and it’s something that was really intriguing to me,” said Ingram, who signed a three-year, $15 million deal. “The interest and the feelings were mutual. Like Coach [Harbaugh] said, he felt like we’re Ravens.”


Note: Thomas said he worked out a deal with cornerback Marlon Humphrey so he could continue to wear No. 29 in Baltimore. Asked whether the swap needed any financial incentives to accomplish, Thomas said he might donate to the track team Humphrey’s mom oversees.

Humphrey later indicated on Twitter that he was switching to No. 32, Weddle’s old number.

“I initially asked Earl for money and later that day I realized that’s not who I am,” he tweeted. “So I texted him and said he can have it. I respect what he has done and accolades in 29. Didn’t want to alter that for a number I’ve accomplished nothing in.”