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Ravens position review: Safety tandem is set for now, but depth is needed

While the Ravens’ cornerbacks saw another injury-riddled season in 2020, the safety position was much more stable.

Of course, it didn’t start that way. The team terminated the contract of veteran Earl Thomas III weeks before the season opener. And while the pairing of Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott was not as heralded as the star-studded cornerback room, it was steady in a season of turbulence.

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With both starters on modest deals, the Ravens have options for 2021. They can run it back with the same group, bring in a backup for depth and versatility or maybe even make another splashy move to upgrade the position via free agency or the draft.

In the 10th of a series of position reviews, The Baltimore Sun will examine the team’s safety situation. Next up is special teams.

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2020 in review

The first bit of adversity in a trying season for the Ravens occurred right before the end of a late August practice when Thomas threw a punch at Clark after he voiced frustration at the three-time All-Pro for a coverage breakdown. Thomas’ punch, and his ensuing release, would thrust Elliott, a talented but often-injured third-year player, into a starting role.

Clark and Elliott rarely left the field, playing 99.7% and 97.9% of the defensive snaps, respectively, which led the unit. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale used the two interchangeably, as Clark and Elliot logged a similar number of coverage and pass-rush snaps. In a season of injures and coronavirus-related absences, the two managed to start all 18 games, including the postseason.

Depth chart

Chuck Clark

Skinny: Since taking over after Tony Jefferson suffered a season-ending injury in 2019, Clark has quickly become one of the defense’s most respected leaders. On a unit filled with stars, Clark relays the defensive play calls and is a smart, even-keel force who keeps the unit together.

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Contract: Clark, 25, signed a three-year extension in February 2020 that will keep him in Baltimore through the 2023 season. He has a salary cap hit of $3.875 million in 2021.

DeShon Elliott

Skinny: While injuries limited Elliott to just 40 snaps in his first two seasons, he was able to shake the injury bug in what was a breakout campaign. He resembled Jefferson, his mentor, as a punishing hitter, reliable tackler and adept blitzer.

Contract: Elliott, 23, is entering the final year of his four-year rookie contract. He has a cap hit of $889,451.

Jordan Richards

Skinny: Richards has served in a special teams role since the team signed him in the middle of the 2019 season. He played 334 snaps on special teams in 2020, which led the team, and just 15 on defense.

Contract: The Ravens re-signed Richards, 28, to a one-year deal in January before he reached free agency. The contract carries a cap hit of $875,000.

Anthony Levine Sr.

Skinny: A nagging abdomen injury forced Levine to sit out one game, ending his streak of 117 consecutive games played. But “Co-Cap” still logged the fourth-most snaps on special teams while his defensive snaps dropped to 30, his fewest since the 2015 season.

Contract: Levine, 33, is headed to unrestricted free agency.

Offseason questions

1. Do the Ravens have their safety pairing of the future?

A little under $5 million of the 2021 salary cap is devoted to Clark and Elliott, giving the Ravens an inexpensive safety tandem. And with just three combined seasons of starting experience between the two, the team has to hope they are just starting to reach their ceilings.

Elliott is eligible for a contract extension and, like Clark, could be in line for one before playing out the final year of his rookie deal. The priority of signing Elliott right now falls behind players such as quarterback Lamar Jackson and tight end Mark Andrews, but a deal shouldn’t be burdensome to the team’s cap and would probably mirror Clark’s, which is worth $15 million over three years.

2. Can Elliott develop into the defense’s next center-field safety?

Clark and Elliott’s similar skill sets were helpful to Martindale, who was able to place them all over the field in a defense built on versatility. But the Ravens lacked a safety in the mold of Thomas, or even Eric Weddle, who had the range and instincts to consistently make plays on the ball downfield. The defense recorded just 10 interceptions, tied for fifth-fewest in the NFL, and Clark came up with the only one from the safety position.

Between the two, Elliott seems most suited to fill the role. He’s just a few years removed from recording six interceptions in his final season at Texas, tied for fourth-most in the country. Elliott had two forced fumbles in 2020 but is still searching for his first career pick.

3. Will the Ravens add a true backup?

Defensive backs don’t often leave the field, but the Ravens typically entered games with four safeties, two of whom primarily contributed on special teams and don’t have an extensive history as starters. Martindale envisioned using Jimmy Smith in a hybrid role, but injures at cornerback cut into that idea and Smith’s own injuries kept him out for several games.

With roster upgrades required at other positions, it’s unlikely the Ravens dole out a huge sum of money in the offseason for a safety, and a backup at that. But given Elliott’s injury history and Clark’s importance to the defense, it would be wise for the team to invest in a veteran who could fill in if either is sidelined.

Potential additions

The Ravens might already have two in-house candidates. The team signed former Detroit Lions starting safety Jayron Kearse to the practice squad before the regular-season finale, but he didn’t appear in any games and is headed to unrestricted free agency. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Kearse is an intriguing matchup option for tight ends in the defense’s dime packages.

Nigel Warrior spent the season on the practice squad as an undrafted rookie after an impressive training camp. He was one of the many players impacted by a lack of preseason games but could play his way onto the 53-man roster with another strong summer.

Despite more pressing needs, several mock drafts have linked the Ravens to TCU safety Trevon Moehrig in the first round. Georgia’s Richard LeCounte is a mid-round option who could contribute immediately on special teams.

Ravens position reviews

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