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How the Ravens Defense Could Look Without Earl Thomas

The 31-year-old safety, who was cut by Baltimore after he punched a teammate, played a key role in the team’s defensive success last season. But the Ravens should have the pieces to make up for his absence.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After Baltimore beat Seattle in Week 7 last season, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh gathered his team in the visiting locker room, held up the game ball, and repeated the words that running back Mark Ingram had said the night before. “We said if everybody does their best, it will be more than enough,” Harbaugh said. “And everybody did their best.” Harbaugh then gave the game ball to Earl Thomas, the former Seahawks legend who was in his first season with Baltimore. He had just beaten his former team and he was now addressing his new one. Thomas put his hand in the air, and the entire Ravens team did the same as they moved to the center of the room to create one big huddle.

“It’s good when y’all boys tell me something and y’all follow through,” Thomas said. “Y’all said you had my back, and you really had my back. Coaches included. Family on 3! 1, 2, 3—”

Then the entire team yelled in unison.

“Family!”

Ten months later, Earl Thomas is no longer a Raven. The team cut Thomas on Sunday, three days after Thomas reportedly punched fellow Ravens safety Chuck Clark in a fight during practice. The Ravens wrote in a statement the team had “terminated Thomas’s contract” for “personal conduct that adversely affected the Baltimore Ravens.” Before the move, Thomas was Baltimore’s second-highest-paid player. The firing came just one year after Baltimore signed the 31-year-old safety to the most guaranteed money ($32 million over four years) for a non-quarterback in team history. Thomas, a possible Hall of Famer who may be the best safety of his generation, is now a free agent. Baltimore, the biggest threat to the Chiefs for the AFC’s spot in the Super Bowl, is now without one of its best players from last season less than three weeks from kickoff.

Baltimore’s offense gets most of the credit for their 14-2 season last year, and for good reason. Lamar Jackson was the youngest NFL MVP since Jim Brown, and he led the NFL in touchdown passes (36) despite ranking 26th in pass attempts (401). Jackson averaged a touchdown pass every 11 throws, a number matched only three times in the past 50 years (Ken Stabler in 1976, Peyton Manning in 2004, and Aaron Rodgers in 2011). Baltimore also set the post-merger record for rushing yards (206 yards per game) and rushing yards per carry (5.5). More important than those numbers, however, was the way that Jackson racked them up.

Statistically and stylistically, the 2019 Ravens were one of the best offenses of all time. The offense was so good that it overshadowed the team’s defense. The Ravens had the fourth-most-efficient defense, according to Football Outsiders, behind only the Patriots, 49ers, and Steelers. If we assign more weight to the second half of the season than the first half, Baltimore was the second-most-efficient defense last year behind only the Steelers. Across the entire regular season, Baltimore allowed the third-fewest points per game (17.6), fourth-fewest yards per game (300.6), and second-fewest first downs per game (17.3)—and Earl Thomas was instrumental to that success.

The Ravens built their defense last year around a larger strategic bet that defensive backs are underrated and pass rushers are overrated. Baltimore signed Thomas and let key pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs leave. The gamble worked, in part because of how the Ravens used Thomas. After rarely playing around the line of scrimmage in Seattle, he moved around the field before the snap in Baltimore, and the results were spectacular. Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of just 24.2 out of 158.3 when targeting Thomas last year, the lowest figure out of all 263 defenders in the NFL who played enough pass coverage snaps to qualify for ratio statistics. Thomas’s opposing passer rating is lower than if a quarterback merely threw one incompletion and left the game (39.6). Passer rating is a flawed statistic, but other numbers suggest he was elite too. Opposing quarterbacks targeting Thomas had a completion percentage of just 44 percent, the second-lowest figure among all defenders—again, that is out of 263 people. The 4.5 receiving yards Thomas allowed per target was sixth best in the NFL.

Football players who perform at that level rarely get fired for any reason, but Baltimore ended Thomas’s tenure quickly, which suggests there was more to this situation. Last season, Thomas had an altercation with Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams that nearly became physical after Baltimore’s loss to Cleveland in Week 4 (the two were separated before anything serious happened). A few weeks later, after the Ravens beat the Seahawks in their final game before their bye week—the one where Thomas was given the game ball—Thomas missed the team flight home and then did not attend Baltimore’s two meetings that week, according to ESPN’s Jamison Henley. NBC’s Peter King, along with other outlets, reported that Thomas was often late to meetings last season and that some of Thomas’s teammates questioned his preparation. The pattern continued into this training camp period. NFL Network’s Mike Silver reported that Thomas missed a meeting last week because he had to get his car washed. A couple of days later, on Friday, came the incident that led to Thomas’s firing. Thomas blitzed when he was supposed to be in coverage, and the defense allowed a touchdown to tight end Mark Andrews. Fellow safety Chuck Clark threw his helmet down in anger, and during a discussion on the sideline, Thomas reportedly punched Clark. Thomas later apologized on Instagram and then deleted the post.

“Earl Thomas essentially said, ‘It’s cool,’” Silver said on NFL Network. “Chuck Clark said, ‘No, it’s not cool. You need to go to meetings and walk-through and maybe you’ll get it.’ That’s how the fight started. But this was a long time brewing.”

All of this is before getting into Thomas’s offseason. In April, Thomas’s wife, Nina, pointed a handgun at Thomas’s head, according to court documents obtained by TMZ. Nina, who mistakenly thought the gun was not loaded, told police she’d had an argument with Earl about his drinking and later discovered him in bed with other women at an Airbnb. Nina was arrested on burglary and assault charges. Thomas, who was not charged with a crime, posted a video on Instagram to try to explain the TMZ story before it was published. But Thomas did not tell the Ravens, who learned about the story on social media, according to ESPN’s Jamison Henley.

All of that is prologue for the fight with Clark on Friday. While Ravens teammates did not publicly criticize Thomas after the fight, the team’s leadership council of players recommended to the team they preferred to get rid of Thomas, according to CBS’s Jason La Canfora. Two days later, Thomas was released. Baltimore has already paid Thomas $22 million but will try to wriggle out of the $10 million the team owes him this season, which will likely come down to arbitration. The incident also marked the second abrupt departure for Thomas, whose time in Seattle ended with his being carted off with a broken leg while giving head coach Pete Carroll the middle finger in October 2018. This one ended more amicably. “Appreciate the Ravens organization for the opportunity,” Thomas wrote in an Instagram Story. “Had a great run .. Wish things would have ended different but you live and you learn.”

Replacing Thomas for Baltimore will be DeShon Elliott, a 2018 sixth-rounder from the University of Texas (ironically the same school where Thomas starred). Elliott played in just six games last year but will be thrust into Baltimore’s starting lineup. “It’s his time,” Harbaugh told reporters on Sunday. Baltimore won’t have much experience at safety now with Thomas gone, but the team has extensive depth at cornerback. Marlon Humphrey has emerged as one of the game’s best at the position, Marcus Peters is a two-time All-Pro, and Jimmy Smith is a profoundly overqualified third cornerback who could also help fill in at safety. Thomas was part of Baltimore’s bet on defensive back depth, but the team is uniquely suited to replace him. Also helping Elliott is that Baltimore reinforced its pass rush this offseason. Last year the Ravens entered the season with one of the least proven pass rushing groups in the NFL, but outside linebacker Matthew Judon emerged as a star. This offseason the Ravens retained Judon with the franchise tag and also snagged Jacksonville defensive end Calais Campbell for a fifth-rounder. While Campbell is 33, he had 14.5 sacks for Jacksonville in 2017 and was named All-Pro. He is a huge upgrade over what the team had last season, and the faster he and Judon get to the quarterback, the less time Smith has to spend in coverage.

Baltimore also has its exceptional offense to lean on. Jackson, the reigning MVP, is somehow the youngest starting quarterback in a division that features Cincinnati’s 2020 no. 1 pick Joe Burrow and Cleveland’s 2018 no. 1 pick Baker Mayfield. There is also a chance that the Ravens passing offense will be even more prolific in 2020. The Ravens targeted tight ends on 42 percent of their throws last year, the highest number on record. But Baltimore intends for Lamar to throw deep to his wide receivers more often this year, and it could be a breakout year for former first-rounder Marquise Brown. Brown, the first receiver drafted in 2019, added 23 pounds this offseason, going from 157 pounds at the end of last season to 180 pounds in training camp (all it took was force-feeding himself 4,000 “clean” calories a day and eliminating Chicken McNuggets). But while the Ravens offense is the fun part, the defense is just as important for their Super Bowl aspirations.

Jackson told The Ringer’s Kevin Clark that the Ravens underestimated the Tennessee Titans in their surprising loss in the divisional round in January. They don’t plan on underestimating anyone again. Cutting Thomas may show they also aren’t willing to overestimate themselves. The Ravens believe that if they can give their best, it will be enough. If someone isn’t giving their best, they’re going to have to go—even if that person is family.