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Ravens release highly paid starting safety Tony Jefferson, a respected on- and off-field leader, saving $7 million

The Ravens released safety Tony Jefferson on Friday, cutting ties with one of their defense’s highest-paid starters after his third and most inconsistent season in Baltimore.

Jefferson, 28, struggled in coverage last year and suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5. He acknowledged on social media last month that he did not expect to be retained this offseason. Jefferson was owed $11.2 million in 2020, the final year of his four-year deal, and the Ravens will save $7 million with his release.

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“This is the worst part of this business,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said in a news release Friday. “Tony is the consummate teammate and someone who is respected by everyone for his leadership, determination, humility and toughness. He’s a friend to all and a true Raven. We know he’s going to beat this injury, and we will be cheering for him all along the way. We wish the very best to Tony and his family.”

Jefferson became the NFL’s sixth-highest-paid safety in 2017 when he signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Ravens, including $19 million guaranteed. Over three seasons in Baltimore, he posted 174 tackles (120 solo) and emerged as one of the locker room’s most respected voices and an off-the-field leader. In 2017, he made a $20,000 donation to a hurricane relief fund to help benefit victims in Puerto Rico and elsewhere.

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But despite starting 35 of his first 37 games with the team, Jefferson struggled to make an impact in the Ravens’ pass defense. He finished with two interceptions and 11 passes defensed, and he had costly lapses in coverage over the first month of last season, when the Ravens defense was in disarray. He allowed a passer rating of 141.4 in 2019, according to Pro-Football-Reference, and his missed-tackle rate (16.0%) was among the team’s worst.

Ravens strong safety Tony Jefferson speaks at a news conference after a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 15. Jefferson, 28, struggled in coverage last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 5.
Ravens strong safety Tony Jefferson speaks at a news conference after a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 15. Jefferson, 28, struggled in coverage last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 5. (Gail Burton/AP)

Over his seven-year career, including four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, Jefferson has 434 tackles (331 solo), 33 tackles for loss, 8½ sacks, four interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), 22 passes defensed, eight forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

“Tony is a tremendous leader, a true competitor, a team player and a family man," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in the release. "His time here has been a blessing. We have the utmost respect for his professionalism and positive contributions to our team and the Baltimore community. We wish he and his family the best going forward.”

Jefferson took to Instagram on Friday to show his appreciation to the organization, saying: “BALTIMORE! First and foremost Thank you Mr. Bisciotti, Coach Harbaugh, Decosta, Ozzie & the entire Ravens organization for believing in me…”

The Ravens already have their replacement in place. Last week, they signed safety Chuck Clark, who arrived in Baltimore in 2017 with Jefferson and later replaced him on defense, to a contract extension through 2023. Clark, a valued special teams contributor, paired well with All-Pro selection Earl Thomas as a box safety who blitzed often and held his own in coverage.

“Well deserved my boy,” Jefferson wrote Monday on Twitter, after Clark re-signed. “Congrats to you and the fam.”

Safety DeShon Elliott, who’s struggled with injuries his first two seasons, is also set to return. Brandon Carr transitioned to safety last season, but it’s unclear whether the Ravens will pick up his contract’s 2020 option. Anthony Levine Sr. and Brynden Trawick have played sparingly there but are pending free agents. The Ravens can also add competition at the position through free agency, which starts next month, and April’s draft.

With Jefferson’s release, DeCosta and the Ravens front office are projected to have over $30 million in salary cap space this offseason. In an Instagram post last week, Jefferson seemed to foreshadow the roster move. In his last post, he wrote, “I ain’t trynna split the profit it’s either all or nothin [sic],” a reference to a song by the rapper Mozzy.

When one of the commenters on the post told him to take a pay cut, Jefferson replied, “You take a pay cut.”

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