Don “Wink” Martindale makes no bones about the role C.J. Mosley will play in his redesigned Ravens defense.
“He’s the quarterback of this whole thing,” Martindale said this spring.
Mosley was perhaps the most important player on the defense last season, when he made his third Pro Bowl in four years. And as the 2018 Ravens began practice Thursday before an enthusiastic crowd at their training facility in Owings Mills, the middle linebacker’s role loomed larger than ever before.
Martindale’s defense will retain many of the essential elements put into place by his predecessor, Dean Pees. But he’ll emphasize on-field adaptability, which will place extra responsibility on key decision-makers such as Mosley and safety Eric Weddle.
“First, you’ve got to be in the playbook a lot more,” Mosley said. “It just gives the veterans and the guys that are on the field a chance to be more diverse. You’re going to be lining up in one defense and on certain plays and certain formations, we could be in the same defense but have different looks.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Martindale’s defense will give more decision-making power to many players.
“C.J. can handle as much responsibility as you give him,” he said. “And he is the middle linebacker, so he’ll be making those calls. But he’s not the only one. A lot of guys have calls. … Pretty much everybody on our defense is responsible for communicating. The fact we’re going to have our players somewhat more involved is a good thing. I think they’re smart players, and I think it gives us a chance in real time, in the course of the game or even in the course of a play, to make the necessary adjustments.”
Mosley was one of several veterans who left the Ravens’ first practice early as Harbaugh executes a gentle ramp-up at the start of the team’s extended training camp (because they’re playing in the Aug. 2 Hall of Fame Game).
Mosley is leading this defensive renaissance at the same time he’s facing questions about his long-term future.
He is entering the fifth and final season of his rookie contract, and he and Ravens officials have both said they want to work out a long-term extension. General manager Ozzie Newsome said in March that he’d begun preliminary talks with Mosley’s agent, Jimmy Sexton.
But Mosley began training camp without any concrete promise of a new deal.
“No updates so far,” he said Thursday as he wiped the practice sweat from his brow. “My answer is still the same as at OTAs. I got here yesterday and I’m here today, ready to work. That’s what it’s all about. Whether something works out or not, I still have an obligation to be the guy in the middle who’s going to make the plays and make the calls.”
He has been adamant that he will not let his contract situation distract from his work this season. Many players in his position might have skipped the team’s voluntary spring workouts. But Mosley showed up, intent on helping the defense acclimate to Martindale’s system.
“It’s just what I’m used to — coming to work, being here with my guys in the offseason, building new relationships with the rookies and the new players on the team,” he said.
His attitude did not surprise Harbaugh, who speaks as glowingly of Mosley as anyone on the team.
“He is very smart. He understands the business side of it,” Harbaugh said. “He has patience in that sense. I think he gets really wise counsel from his parents, but he’s also a leader. He’s tough, he loves football, and he understands that for us to be great on defense, we need him out there; we need him running the show.”
Though Mosley already feels like a Ravens institution, he acknowledged the less pleasant reality that the team has made the playoffs just once in his career, when he was a rookie. He’s aware sweeping changes could be near if the team does not break its spell of mediocrity.
“If you don’t win, you get replaced. That’s upstairs and on the field,” he said. “We kind of talk about the past and what made us get in that situation, not finishing. Whatever reason it might have been the past two years, it’s kind of known. We don’t have to talk about it. We know what this team is capable of and what the city expects.”
Though Mosley has missed just two games in four years, he has often played banged up. So he was pleased to prepare for this pivotal season without having to recover from any surgeries.
“Surgeries, they weigh a toll on you,” he said this spring, speaking from experience. “It’s been good to come out with healthy shoulders and healthy wrists. Towards the end of the season, I hurt my ankle, but I haven’t had any problems with that in the offseason running. For the most part I feel pretty good. … It’s been good just to start from where I finished and build on that.”
He’s one of the players the Ravens could least afford to lose, not only because of his intelligence and productivity but because inside linebacker is one of the thinner positions on the roster. Patrick Onwuasor exceeded expectations by winning a starting spot next to Mosley last season. But the team doesn’t have an obvious long-term prospect to pair with its Pro Bowl linebacker. Veteran Albert McClellan, who looks trim and healthy after missing last season, would probably be the next man up behind Onwuasor.
Though Mosley is only 26, he’s already revered by younger teammates, especially those who also played for Nick Saban at Alabama.
“He’s legendary already to us,” rookie cornerback Anthony Averett said this spring.
Mosley doesn’t necessarily act the part. Unlike the last great middle linebacker to play in Baltimore — soon-to-be Hall of Famer Ray Lewis — he’s unlikely to speak of his career in epic terms.
He offered a simple explanation for why rookies lean on his counsel.