As safety Chuck Clark met with the media in February fresh off signing a new three-year contract extension, it was easy to see an early trend in the Eric DeCosta regime in Baltimore: The second-year general manager has made good on his stated pledge to retain his own players as much as possible, and he has made clear that the secondary will be a major area of investment.
Consider that in his first 12 months as general manager after succeeding his longtime boss Ozzie Newsome, DeCosta has:
- Signed cornerback Tavon Young to a three-year, $25.8 million contract extension, making him one of the highest-paid slot corners in the league;
- Signed safety Earl Thomas to a four-year, $55 million deal that represented the largest contract ever given to a player outside the organization;
- Acquired Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters in a trade, then signed him to a three-year, $42 million extension;
- And re-signed Clark to a three-year extension worth a reported $19 million after the former sixth-round pick became one of the breakout stars for the Ravens’ defense in 2019.
According to spotrac.com, which tracks player contracts, as of February the Ravens had committed more than $65 million to their secondary for 2020, the highest total in the league. That will fluctuate with various offseason acquisitions and releases, but the message is obvious, borne out of hard-earned lessons through the years: Quality secondary play is worth the price tag.
The Ravens are coming off a season in which they went 14-2 — a franchise best — and earned the No. 1 seeding in the AFC for the first time in franchise history before being upset by the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round of the playoffs.
As DeCosta and his staff continue the roster-building process this spring, they do so knowing they have the reigning Most Valuable Player in quarterback Lamar Jackson and an offense that returns nearly every starter in 2020. They also have a secondary that should be among the strongest in the league and should remain intact for several years.
Thanks to these deals, Young, Thomas and Peters are all signed through 2022, and Clark is signed through 2023. Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey is entering the final year of his rookie contract, though the Ravens retain a fifth-year option on him that would keep him under contract through 2021. That option figures to be exercised.
“We want our players, and our players want to be here,” head coach John Harbaugh said after Peters’ extension was announced.
In the case of Young — who missed the entire 2019 season with a neck injury — and Clark, the extensions came a full year before free agency, which has benefits to both the team and player.
The team gets a long-term commitment from a player it views as a key part of its future, and the player gains financial security with significant, guaranteed money in a sport where a career-ending injury could be one play away.
Clark, who turns 25 in April, said the Ravens were “the right fit,” and an extension came together shortly after the season ended for one of the Ravens’ rising defensive stars. He moved into a starting role in Week 6 after a season-ending injury to Tony Jefferson and finished the season as the team’s leading tackler with 73, playing either safety or dime linebacker.
The former sixth-round pick, who had one career start before the 2019 season, took over wearing the defensive headset helmet and commanded the defense with a confidence that belied his experience.
Veteran players were immediately impressed by Clark’s acumen and bought into his leadership, which figures to only grow now that he has asserted himself as a linchpin of the defense.
“I saw it the first day. … He was on it,” Thomas said early in the season. “He was just like a starter. I was like, ‘Bro, why are they bringing me in here when they’ve got this guy?'”
Peters, meanwhile, was extended in December, about three months before he would have become a free agent.
“I really appreciate the organization bringing me in and getting some things done so I could be around here for a few more years,” he said after the season ended. “I’m excited … about the future with us.”
To be fair, it’s not as if the Ravens had ignored the secondary in the latter years of Newsome’s tenure as GM. On Newsome’s watch, the Ravens signed Jefferson to a four-year, $34 million deal, and a year later they signed safety Eric Weddle for four years and $26 million, but those moves came in part because first-round draft pick Matt Elam never lived up to his billing and the Ravens had struggled to adequately replace Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed.
Newsome frequently said, “You can never have too many cornerbacks,” a philosophy DeCosta clearly espouses as well. Yet at times in recent years, the Ravens have been exposed by the lack of talent, depth or both at cornerback, and recurring injuries to Jimmy Smith haven’t helped. The Ravens at times were left to rely on street free agents or practice squad callups in key spots in key games, a daunting — and often losing — proposition when facing the likes of Tom Brady, Antonio Brown or A.J. Green.
The next logical step would be extending the contract of Humphrey, who is entering the final year of his original four-year rookie contract. Because Humphrey was a first-round draft pick, the Ravens retain a fifth-year option on him. The Ravens would need to pick up that option by May — which seems a foregone conclusion — and he would be under contract through 2021.
With a fifth-year option in play, the Ravens can afford to wait on Humphrey, but should they? The top-tier cornerback market is already north of $15 million a year, with Miami’s Xavien Howard earning a five-year, $76.5 million deal last spring. The franchise tag for cornerbacks next year figures to be north of $16 million.
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti has said in the past he believes in paying “ascending players,” and Humphrey fits the bill. He turns 24 in July and earned his first Pro Bowl appearance this year. He finished second on the team with 65 tackles, led the team with 14 passes defensed and tied Peters for the team lead with three interceptions. Humphrey scored on fumble returns in wins against Seattle and New England and forced a fumble that led to an overtime win at Pittsburgh.
He has also established himself as one of the top shutdown cornerbacks in the league. In the Week 4 matchup with Cleveland, Humphrey pretty much shadowed Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and held him without a catch for three quarters — the first time that had happened in Beckham’s career. Beckham was frustrated enough that he and Humphrey ended up in a tussle.
An extension for Humphrey would further fortify the Ravens’ secondary well into the 2020s.
“As a ballplayer, you want to win championships,” Clark said, “and I think we got the right pieces in place to go and do that.”
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