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Ravens 2019 training camp preview: Safety

Ravens 2019 training camp preview: Safety
Ravens safety Earl Thomas answers a question from reporters after a mandatory minicamp practice in June. (Xavier Plater / Baltimore Sun)

After more than a month of inactivity, football is approaching fast.

The Ravens’ first full-team training camp practice will be held Thursday. Their first preseason game is Aug. 8 against the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars. Final cuts for the 53-man active roster are due by 4 p.m. Aug. 31.

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Training camp will help shape the roster before the Sept. 8 regular-season opener against the Dolphins in Miami. As practice nears, The Baltimore Sun will take a position-by-position look at the Ravens’ roster, including breakdowns of all 90 players. Today, the team’s safety situation is analyzed.

One big question

How will Earl Thomas hold up? After starting 107 straight games for the Seattle Seahawks from 2010 to 2016, the five-time All-Pro selection has struggled to stay healthy. A hamstring injury sidelined Thomas briefly in 2016 and 2017. He broke his tibia in 2016 and fractured his leg last season, both season-ending injuries. And at the end of mandatory minicamp, he said he still has days when he doesn’t feel totally right. More than a month off and continued rehabilitation should help.

Ravens defensive back DeShon Elliott played mostly on special teams last season.
Ravens defensive back DeShon Elliott played mostly on special teams last season. (Patrick Semansky / AP)
One smaller question

How can the Ravens get DeShon Elliott on the field? If Elliott’s strong offseason showings continue through training camp and preseason games, the Ravens would be wise to get him involved in more than just special teams. But defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale rarely split up the safety pairing of Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson over the past two years, preferring to maintain in-game continuity. If that tendency persists with Thomas and Jefferson, could Elliott cut into Anthony Levine Sr.’s playing time?

Projected starters

Earl Thomas: The Ravens’ most splashy free-agent signing, when he’s at his best, should have a transformative effect on the secondary. Injuries sidelined Thomas for a combined 19 games over the past three seasons, but the Seahawks were appreciably better on defense when he was in uniform.

According to ESPN, with Thomas on the field, Seattle gave up 30 passing touchdowns, had 30 interceptions, and allowed a 60.1% completion rate and 77.2 passer rating from 2016 to 2018. Without Thomas, it was open season for quarterbacks: 31 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 64.1% accuracy and a 98.2 passer rating.

Thomas’ mere presence as a center fielder in the Seahawks’ regular Cover 3 zone schemes discouraged quarterbacks from challenging him. Not only were fewer deep-middle passes attempted against Thomas than others, but they were also far less successful, according to Sports Info Solutions. The Ravens’ coverage schemes are more complex, but Martindale will find ways to capitalize on Thomas’ range.

Safety Tony Jefferson opens his third season with the Ravens.
Safety Tony Jefferson opens his third season with the Ravens. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Tony Jefferson: Starting over with Thomas as his new running mate might be for the best. Jefferson’s play has ranged from solid to good over his two seasons in Baltimore, but the arrival of a deep-lying safety could allow Jefferson to be the kind of box safety he was early in his career.

Over four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, Jefferson was No. 1 in the NFL in run-stop percentage among safeties, according to Pro Football Focus. Since joining the Ravens in 2017, he’s continued to be among the best at his position at getting after the quarterback, but last year saw fewer pass-rush snaps than the less athletic Weddle (in two fewer games, it should be noted). That will probably change next to Thomas.

Jefferson’s future beyond 2019 is uncertain. His salary cap hit jumps this season, from $5.7 million to $12.7 million, and then decreases slightly in 2020, the final year of his four-year deal, when he’s guaranteed only $4.2 million. Jefferson is still just 27, and his durability and intelligence would be assets on any defense.

Backups

Chuck Clark: Of the 12 interceptions that Kansas City Chiefs star and reigning NFL Most Valuable Player Patrick Mahomes threw last year, who would’ve guessed the Ravens’ backup safety would get one? Clark, now entering his third year, started twice late last season for an injured Jefferson and held his own. But the former sixth-round pick ended the year with just 10 total defensive snaps over the season’s final four games, including the playoffs. Clark’s greatest value was on special teams, where he had nine games with over 80% participation.

DeShon Elliott: The toast of the Ravens defense for parts of offseason workouts, the 2018 sixth-round pick has started to rediscover the playmaking ability that made him a unanimous All-American at Texas. That marks an improvement from Elliott’s work last year, when a forearm injury in August cut short a rookie season most notable for his physicality (sometimes unwarranted) in training camp. If he keeps picking passes off in training camp, he’ll likely push starters for snaps.

Safety Anthony Levine has been a staple in the Ravens' dime and nickel packages.
Safety Anthony Levine has been a staple in the Ravens' dime and nickel packages. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

Anthony Levine Sr.: The importance of the team’s defensive back-linebacker hybrid has moved in lockstep with the rise of the Ravens’ nickel and dime sub-packages. Last season, Levine did the unthinkable: He recorded a career high in defensive snaps at age 31, playing 27.1% overall. Four years ago, his share was less than 1%.

Levine’s importance was underlined during the defining drive of the Ravens’ 2018 season. As the Cleveland Browns looked for a go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter of their regular-season finale, Levine never left the field. With the AFC North title on the line, he covered running back Duke Johnson out wide, helped bracket wide receiver Rashard Higgins and broke up two passes to tight end David Njoku.

With linebacker C.J. Mosley’s exit, Levine could see even more time as a second-level defender on passing downs. “The Swiss Army knife, right?” coach John Harbaugh said of Levine at the end of minicamp. “He plays everything.”

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Long shot

Bennett Jackson: How is that a 2014 draft pick will enter the 2019 preseason having never played in a regular-season game? Blame knee injuries that cost Jackson two seasons and forced him out of the NFL for a while. And credit his hard work for earning a reserve-future deal after the 2017 season. The former sixth-round pick had an interception during organized team activities and could push for a roster spot.

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