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With signings of Earl Thomas and Mark Ingram, Ravens boldly change offseason's direction

On Thursday, Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged that, even during the season, he knew losing Eric Weddle was always a possibility. It was a matter of resources, he said. The front office could not afford to keep Weddle, just as it would not be able to retain free agents C.J. Mosley, Za’Darius Smith or Terrell Suggs for the team’s top-ranked defense.

Their losses won’t be easily overcome this offseason. But in Baltimore, it seems that great safeties do not wait long to replace one another. After Ed Reed, a Pro Football Hall of Fame member, there was Weddle, whom Harbaugh believes is headed there. And now, after a surprising splurge, there is Earl Thomas, as productive an NFL safety as there’s been over the past decade.

The former Seattle Seahawks star on Wednesday afternoon signed a four-year deal with the Ravens worth a reported $55 million, including $32 million guaranteed, another expensive but impressive piece in the team’s defensive backfield. The Ravens also landed former New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram, who signed a three-year deal worth $15 million.

Thomas, who turns 30 in May, was considered one of the top 10 free agents available this offseason. He was among the best still remaining after a wild two-plus days that had stripped the Ravens defense of its leading tackler (Mosley), its reigning sack king (Smith) and its most experienced player (Suggs). A schematic fit in defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s aggressive system, Thomas should single-handedly elevate a pass defense that finished No. 5 in the NFL last season.

In Seattle, the former first-round draft pick was an analytics darling and fan favorite, acclaimed for his ability to cover in the secondary as a deep-lying safety and deliver punishing hits that belied his 5-foot-10, 202-pound frame. Thomas made the Pro Bowl six times, was named All-Pro five times, and won two NFC titles and Super Bowl XLVIII in his nine seasons with the Seahawks.

"Earl is as good as any of the [safeties] I've ever coached," said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who coached former Pittsburgh Steelers legend Troy Polamalu at Southern California. "All those guys are different, and Earl is more like Troy because of his extraordinary speed and his size and all that. But there's no end to the potential that Earl has, because he's so fast and he's so tough. But more than that, he's just so driven to be great."

Carroll said that in 2013 — before the second of Thomas’ three straight first-team All-Pro selections, before Pro Football Focus rated Thomas as an elite performer in every season but one from 2014 through last year. The analytics website named him one of the NFL’s top 70 players three times in that period, and he finished his injury-shortened 2018 with the highest grade of his career.

As the core of Seattle’s revered “Legion of Boom” faded in recent years, Thomas made clear to the Seahawks’ front office that he sought a significant contract extension. After a December 2017 game, the Texas native and former Longhorns star even went so far as telling Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett to “come get me.”

Thomas did not report to training camp last season, in hopes that Seattle would either trade him or renegotiate his contract before his final season under team control. He returned just days before the Seahawks’ season opener, ensuring he would not miss any game checks of his $8.5 million base salary.

He played just four games before suffering his second broken leg in three seasons. After starting 107 straight games for Seattle from 2010 to 2016, the second-longest streak for a position player in team history, Thomas has missed a combined 19 games over the past three seasons. He gave the Seahawks sideline the middle finger as he was carted off the field in late September, one final message to the organization in his last game with the team.

"That's the crazy part of our business," Seattle star linebacker Bobby Wagner said afterward. "If he doesn't come, then he's not a team player. If he does come and gets hurt, it's, ‘He shouldn't have come.’ It's a position we get put in often. It's an unfortunate situation.”

Thomas still finished the season with three interceptions and has 28 for his career. No Ravens defensive back last season had more than two, about the only shortcoming for a secondary that is among the league’s top performing and best paid.

According to Over the Cap, the Ravens lead the NFL in cornerback spending for 2019, with Jimmy Smith ($15.85 million) and Brandon Carr ($7 million) among the team's biggest salary cap hits. With Thomas’ deal reportedly including a $20 million signing bonus and a $7 million cap hit in its first year, the Ravens are expected to be No. 4 in safety spending.

That’s one way to stay ahead in the NFL — and the AFC North in particular, where the Cleveland Browns, by trading for Odell Beckham Jr., now have an All-Pro-caliber receiver to match the Pittsburgh Steelers (JuJu Smith-Schuster) and Cincinnati Bengals (A.J. Green).

The Ravens’ flurry of activity in the hours before the 2018-19 league year began was not confined to defense. Ingram, 29, the second-leading rusher in Saints history, is expected to give the Ravens backfield a more well-rounded threat and should challenge incumbent Gus Edwards for the starting role.

He’s especially valued as a pass blocker and receiver. The former Heisman Trophy winner had at least 319 receiving yards in three of his past four seasons, with 400-plus-yard totals in 2015 and 2017; only Buck Allen had 300-plus receiving yards as a Ravens running back in the same period.

As a running threat, it is a closer competition. In 11 games (six starts) his rookie year, Edwards had 137 attempts for 718 yards (5.2 per carry) and two touchdowns. Ingram, meanwhile, had 138 attempts for 645 yards (4.7 per carry) — his lowest yardage total since 2013 — and six touchdowns in 12 games (six starts).

Ingram has completed a full 16-game season just three times but has never appeared in fewer than 10 games over his NFL career. He was suspended for the Saints’ first four games last year because of a violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

Ingram’s message to Ravens fans Tuesday afternoon, after a spending spree that had changed the feel of the Ravens’ offseason, was a credible one.

“And we ain’t letting up no time soon,” Ingram said on Twitter. “I swear.”

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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