The Ravens have agreed to terms with free agent Marcus Williams, adding a ball-hawking safety to a passing defense that sorely lacked game-changing plays last year.
According to ESPN, which first reported the deal, the contract is for five years and $70 million.
The signing cannot be finalized until March 16 at 4 p.m., when the new league year begins, but pending free agents have been able to negotiate with teams during the so-called legal tampering window that began March 14.
The Ravens’ first foray into 2022 free agency should bolster a passing defense that was riddled by injuries and ranked last in the league last season.
Viewed as the top safety on the market, Williams was ranked as a top-10 overall free agent by both Pro Football Focus and ESPN after a five-year career with the New Orleans Saints, who selected him in the second round of the 2017 draft out of Utah.
Williams, who turns 26 in September, had 74 tackles, two interceptions and eight passes defensed this past season, which he played for the Saints under the franchise tag. He was ranked No. 7 overall among safeties by Pro Football Focus in 2021.
In five seasons, Williams has totaled 15 interceptions, including one that he returned for a touchdown, 38 passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Head coach John Harbaugh has often referred to the importance of “sudden change plays,” and the Ravens didn’t get nearly enough of them last year en route to an 8-9 record, just the second losing season in Harbaugh’s 14-year tenure. The Ravens ended the season on a six-game losing streak.
The Ravens, racked by injuries on both sides of the ball and hit especially hard in the secondary, finished with 15 takeaways, the second-lowest total in franchise history.
The Ravens defense ranked No. 1 overall against the run but No. 32 against the pass, and they allowed 4,742 passing yards, the most in franchise history. Opponents gained 5.98 yards per play, the highest total in the league.
At his season-ending news conference last month, general manager Eric DeCosta suggested that he might take an aggressive swing at a safety in free agency.
“In general, especially on the back end, our inability this year to create turnovers was probably an issue for us,” DeCosta said, “and I would love to see us make the play this year coming up — intercept more passes, cause more fumbles, be more disruptive. So if the opportunity presents itself and we see a dynamic corner or a dynamic safety, of course, that would be something that would be attractive to us.”
“When you play the Steelers, when you play the Browns, when you play the Bengals twice a year, and you see their skill players,” DeCosta continued, “it becomes imperative that we always have a strong back end.”
Williams figures to start alongside veteran strong safety Chuck Clark, and if Pro Bowl cornerbacks Marcus Peters (knee) and Marlon Humphrey (pectoral muscle) return as expected from injuries that sidelined them for extended periods in 2021, the Ravens should again field one of the league’s top secondaries.
The signing of Williams might mean pending free agent DeShon Elliott ends up elsewhere. The Ravens like his swagger and physicality, but injuries have hampered his four-year career and he could look for a starting opportunity with another team. Elliott is pound-for-pound one of the toughest hitters in the league, but he has recorded just one interception in 22 starts and has missed 37 games in four years because of injuries.
The Ravens began free agency with roughly $16 million in cap space. They hope to re-sign some of their own pending free agents, but they are all now free to explore their value on the open market. In addition to Elliott, that group who could draw notable interest includes center Bradley Bozeman, fullback Patrick Ricard, defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams, edge rusher Justin Houston and cornerback Anthony Averett.
MOSES ON BOARD, TOO: The Ravens also reportedly agreed to terms with veteran right tackle Morgan Moses on a three-year, $15 million deal. The move was first reported by The Athletic.
Moses, 31, has started all but one regular-season game since 2015. He figures to be the starting right tackle for the Ravens, who struggled to find a consistent mix along the offensive line in 2021. Other tackle options include Ronnie Stanley, Ja’Wuan James and Patrick Mekari, though the health of Stanley will be a major question heading into the 2022 season.
Alejandro Villanueva, the Ravens’ left tackle for almost all of 2021, recently retired.
UPDATE: The Ravens confirmed when the new league year opened at 4 p.m. on March 16 that the team agreed to terms with Marcus Williams and Morgan Moses.