The Ravens have cut veteran safety Eric Weddle, he confirmed Tuesday, a cost-cutting move that will reshape their top-ranked defense in the team’s first offseason under general manager Eric DeCosta.
Weddle, 34, was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his three years with the Ravens. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 10th-rated safety last season and was considered a leader in the back end of the NFL’s top-ranked defense, but he had no interceptions and was criticized at times for his diminished open-field athleticism.
“What a great 3 yrs we had in BMORE!!!” he tweeted Tuesday night. “3 Pro Bowls, #1 DEF, 2018 AFC north Champs. Ravens took a chance on me and will forever be grateful. Our family will miss Maryland. Excited to see where I end up next season!!!!”
Weddle, who signed a four-year, $26 million contract in March 2016 after nine seasons with the San Diego Chargers, was due $7.5 million next season. The Ravens will save the same amount in salary cap space with his release and incur $1.75 million in dead money. Free agency officially begins March 13.
The move was first reported by NFL Network early Tuesday night, hours after the Ravens declined to place the franchise tag on inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. With outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith and defensive end Brent Urban also pending unrestricted free agents, the Ravens could lose several significant defensive contributors in the coming weeks.
Weddle’s release appeared increasingly likely with every public comment this offseason. As the Ravens cleaned out their lockers the day after a home playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, Weddle said he would rather retire than play out the final year on his contract elsewhere.
“It’s either play my last year here [in Baltimore] and that will be it and enjoy it, or this has been it,” he said. “It’s pretty simple. I’m a simple kind of guy.”
Weeks later, at the Pro Bowl, Weddle told the team website that while he still wanted to return, he was “not sure if things are going to get worked out with Baltimore.” He also raised the possibility of playing for another team if DeCosta did not want him back.
“They got to do what's best for them, and I respect that. … [We’ll] see if there's something to be worked out,” he said. “If not, then I've had an unbelievable experience here and loved every second. So if it does happen, we both move on and then ... we'll see if I'll play somewhere else or hang 'em up.”
At his introductory news conference, DeCosta repeated the “Right player, right price” mantra of his predecessor, Ozzie Newsome, when asked whether the Ravens would bring back Weddle and guard Marshal Yanda. (Coach John Harbaugh has since said that he expects Yanda to return next season.)
DeCosta remained vague about his intentions at the NFL scouting combine last week. He said Weddle and cornerback Jimmy Smith, who has a salary cap hit of nearly $16 million next season, remained under contract but cautioned: "We've got to be as responsible as we can with the salary cap, trying to free up as much money as we can to make moves going forward."
The Ravens never finished lower than 10th in pass defense in Weddle’s three years in Baltimore, climbing as high as fifth this past season. Don “Wink” Martindale, in his first year as the team’s defensive coordinator, afforded the team greater latitude in its presnap reads and handed Weddle more responsibilities, including some signal-calling duties. Martindale called him a “football savant” in January for his ability to disguise coverages and “bother” quarterbacks like Philip Rivers.
But Weddle has played in 194 regular-season and playoff games over his career, and he showed his age at times last year. In a Week 2 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, wide receiver A.J. Green ran by Weddle on a catch-and-run score as if the safety were chasing him in weighted shoes. In a Week 14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Weddle whiffed badly on an attempted tackle of Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill, whom he outweighed by about 10 pounds, allowing a third-and-long to be converted in an eventual touchdown drive. He was strong in run support and smart in his movement as a deep safety, but also not getting any younger.
Weddle’s absence will perhaps be felt most acutely in the Ravens locker room, where he was well respected and considered a mentor to the team’s younger players. Before special teams ace Anthony Levine Sr. emerged last season as an important dime linebacker, Weddle asked him soon after his arrival in Baltimore why he wasn’t playing more. He thought Levine deserved a bigger role.
“Gonna miss my guy @weddlesbeard,” Levine tweeted Tuesday night, mentioning Weddle by his beard-inspired account. “I appreciate everything! Thank you bro.”
Other Twitter tributes from across the roster and NFL poured in. Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III called him a "Great teammate and great person." Ravens wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo said that from Weddle, he learned "how to be a true pro about everything." Cornerback Tavon Young said he would "miss my dog." Former Ravens wide receiver Tim White, now with the New York Jets, wrote: “Practicing against @weddlesbeard everyday really let me know what being a pro was about. How he put his teammates in positions to make plays across the field is simple [sic] amazing.”
Weddle will now join a crowded free-agent class of safeties from which the Ravens could sign a potential replacement. Earl Thomas, Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu and Lamarcus Joyner are among the headliners expected to be available. If the Ravens do not sign a free-agent safety, the front office would likely turn to the draft to fill out the team’s depth chart.
Internally, the Ravens could look to pair returning starter Tony Jefferson with Chuck Clark, a 2017 sixth-round pick who played mostly special teams, or DeShon Elliott, a sixth-round pick last year who missed all of his rookie season with a fractured forearm.
Their challenge in replacing Weddle is obvious. Over two NFL seasons, Clark has four fewer combined snaps (1,012) than Weddle had just last season (1,016). The veteran was as durable as he was self-assured. Throughout the season, Weddle would sometimes punctuate wins by telling reporters that “it ain’t the same Ravens.” With his departure, the same can be said for the 2019 team, too.