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With release of Earl Thomas III, Ravens seek a fresh start after a sour end

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

The Ravens released Earl Thomas III on Sunday, two days after an on-field scuffle with a teammate that became an indictment of the Pro Bowl safety’s role on a Super Bowl contender.

The Ravens announced that they had terminated his contract for “personal conduct that has adversely affected” the team. By terminating Thomas’ contract, the Ravens will likely seek to recover the $10 million in guaranteed base salary owed to him this year.

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Thomas last offseason signed a four-year, $55 million contract, including $32 million guaranteed, the largest deal for a Ravens defender in franchise history. He’s expected to file a grievance with the NFL Players Association if the Ravens attempt to void his guaranteed salary.

Thomas was sent home from the team facility Friday after fellow starting safety Chuck Clark confronted him late in practice over a coverage breakdown. As they scuffled on the sideline, with Thomas putting up his fists and reportedly punching Clark, they twice had to be separated by teammates. He was told not to return to the facility for practice Saturday and was released shortly before practice Sunday afternoon.

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“Appreciate the Ravens organizations for the opportunity. Had a great run,” Thomas shared on an Instagram Story shortly after the announcement. “Wish things would have ended differently, but you live and you learn. Thank you [general manager] Eric DeCosta and everyone else who has played a role in bringing me to B-More. Wish you guys the best.”

Thomas, 31, will leave Baltimore after a standout season in coverage but a checkered year in the locker room. The mercurial star did little to endear himself to fans, teammates or the front office, from confronting defensive tackle Brandon Williams after a Week 4 loss for not playing, to not informing Ravens officials about an offseason incident in which his wife allegedly held him at gunpoint, to reportedly arriving late to team meetings.

After Sunday’s practice, Ravens coach John Harbaugh declined to comment on Thomas’ release, referring only to the team’s 17-word announcement.

“I think the statement speaks for itself,” Harbaugh said in a video conference call. “There’s not much more to add to that. Just planning on leaving it at that, at this point.”

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Harbaugh declined to comment on whether input from players had factored into Thomas’ release. Asked whether he would talk about Thomas’ contributions to the Ravens and what the team would miss with him gone, Harbaugh said: “No, I’m good. We’re good moving forward. Eyes ahead.”

Ravens pass defense coordinator Chris Hewitt, who spoke shortly after Harbaugh, was no more forthcoming. Asked about Thomas’ release, he said: “Well, I thought Coach has already talked about that, and I think we’re moving on in a different direction, so if you guys want to keep on talking about Earl Thomas, I think we’ve already addressed that.”

The Ravens’ patience with Thomas had long since grown thin. When he arrived in March 2019, he was hailed as the team’s next great safety, a center-field playmaker who could uphold the defensive legacy of Ed Reed and Eric Weddle.

Thomas had made six Pro Bowls and been named first-team All-Pro three times in his nine seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. But his relationship with the team had soured amid a contract standoff, and when he broke his left leg for the second time in three seasons in September 2018, Thomas gave Seattle coach Pete Carroll the middle finger as he was carted off the field.

The Ravens offered a fresh start and a record deal, but Thomas’ insecurities remained indivisible from his talent. Before a Week 3 clash with the Chiefs, he said he planned on “eliminating all the big plays.” Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes then passed for 374 yards and three touchdowns in a 33-28 win. A week later, Thomas had a heated exchange with Williams, a late scratch, after a loss to the Cleveland Browns. Thomas said they later reconciled.

In April, Thomas’ wife found him in bed with another woman and allegedly pointed a loaded gun at him, less than a foot from his head. Ravens officials didn’t know about the incident until he shared a video on his Instagram page just minutes before TMZ published its report.

While running back Derrick Henry’s cartoonish stiff arm of Thomas in the Ravens’ season-ending loss to the Tennessee Titans renewed criticism of his ability, the safety had quietly grown into his role in the team’s complex defense. In coverage, he allowed a Ravens-best passer rating of 24.2 and 113 yards overall, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Despite having just two interceptions in 15 games, he was named to his seventh Pro Bowl.

In a since-deleted Instagram post Saturday, Thomas blamed himself for the “mental error” that had led to the blown coverage and confrontation with Clark the day before. But he also lamented that this had been “one of my best camps.”

“I think Earl is just getting ready to add another year to his Hall of Fame career,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said earlier this month. “Now he’s going 100 mph and he looks like he’s ready to go.”

His release has far-reaching consequences for a team considered one of the NFL’s best. Safety DeShon Elliott, a 2018 sixth-round pick who has suffered two season-ending injuries and appeared in just six career games, is expected to pair with Clark in the Ravens’ talented secondary. Defensive back Jimmy Smith could also function as a safety at times in the team’s scheme.

Financially, the Ravens will take a $15 million salary cap hit this year unless they can void Thomas’ guaranteed salary. They’ll also incur $10 million in dead money in 2021, when the salary cap could fall from $198 million to as low as $175 million. A successful grievance claim and a new deal for Thomas, however, would reduce his cap hit in Baltimore.

With the Ravens’ season opener just three weeks away, the team must move on from a divorce that seemed unimaginable last year. At the end of a mid-June mandatory minicamp, just months into Thomas’ Ravens tenure, he said his teammates were “starting to understand me, and vice versa.” He called it a locker room he wanted to be a part of.

On Sunday, the Ravens kicked him out of it for good.

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