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OWINGS MILLS — It didnâ€™t take long for the Baltimore Ravens to identify a capable replacement for departed All-Pro outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, securing the services of former backup Jarret Johnson with a three-year, $13 million contract.
Although Johnson lacks the elite athleticism and versatility Thomas will now supply to the New England Patriots after joining them Saturday as one of the NFLâ€™s most coveted free agents, the rugged 6-foot-3, 270-pounder has proven himself to the coaching staff as a valued reserve.
Now, Johnson faces the challenge of becoming a full-time starter for the first time since Baltimore drafted him in the fourth round in 2003 out of the University of Alabama. His promotion to first-string represents the only lineup change to the NFLâ€™s top-ranked defense.
â€œIt just goes to show how confident they are in you,â€ Johnson said. â€œYou always know they like you. But when they come out and show it to you, itâ€™s a nice compliment.â€
Itâ€™s a nod to the gritty Florida native that he was retained considering Baltimore has already lost four players, including three starters, since free agency began without attempting to submit competing offers due to its tight salary-cap situation.
That group includes Thomas signing a five-year deal with the Patriots believed to be worth $37 million, including $20 million in guaranteed money and $24 million during the first three years. Baltimore has lost offensive tackle Tony Pashos to the Jacksonville Jaguars (six years, $24 million, $9 million signing bonus) and fullback Ovie Mughelli to the Atlanta Falcons (five years, $18 million, $5 million signing bonus).
â€œItâ€™s hard to walk away from good players like that,â€ Johnson said.
Plus, backup nose guard Aubrayo Franklin signed a three-year, $6 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday that included a $3 million signing bonus.
Johnson, 25, has started along the defensive line, primarily at defensive end, while also lining up at inside linebacker and outside linebacker. In four seasons, he has registered 144 tackles, three sacks and one interception.
He’s considered steady, intelligent, physical and mobile enough to handle most pass-coverage situations. His retention means the Ravens will not pursue former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, and Johnson can take comfort in having a permanent home now.
â€œThatâ€™s a big thing, I can focus on one job,â€ Johnson said. â€œI enjoyed what I did before, but this is exciting.â€
While Johnson was getting accustomed to his promotion, Thomas was getting acclimated to Gillette Stadium after passing a physical and finalizing his contract.
Thomas, 29, hopes to transplant his ability to play several positions, including defensive end, outside linebacker, safety and even cornerback once for a few snaps across from Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson, for a perennial Super Bowl contender.
â€œIâ€™m a football player, I donâ€™t play a position,â€ Thomas said in a conference call Saturday afternoon. â€œWhatever is needed for me to do here, Iâ€™m going to do. Thatâ€™s why the Patriots have been so successful here because they donâ€™t look at it as a position. They look at it as football.â€
The Ravens declined to retain the 6-foot-2, 270-pound former sixth-round draft pick from Southern Mississippi when they didnâ€™t assign him a $7.2 million franchise tag prior to free agency.
Thomas built a rapport with Patriots coach Bill Belichick when he coached the AFC squad at this yearâ€™s Pro Bowl.
â€œPersonally and professionally, we are very impressed with Adalius Thomas,â€ Belichick said. â€œHis playmaking, toughness, intelligence, versatility and character were all factors in our decision to pursue him.â€
Thomas registered 106 tackles and 11 sacks last season as Baltimore allowed a league-low 12.6 points per contest.
When free agency began, Thomas had the choice of going to either the Patriots or the 49ers, but opted to eschew the 49ersâ€™ offer of nearly $40 million on a six-year package, including $20 million in guaranteed money, for the chance to go to a proven football team.
â€œWe donâ€™t want to come here and play games,â€ Thomas said. â€œThereâ€™s no need to go looking for the best when you start with the best. My first offer was here, and there was no need to go anywhere else. We didn’t want to drag this out into a circus. We wanted to come in and get to business."
This day culminated a steady career ascension for Thomas from an overlooked college standout, to a Pro Bowl special-teams ace in 2003 into one of the NFLâ€™s top linebackers.
Thomas has 38.5 career sacks, including 28 since 2004 for the most by any NFL linebacker, six interceptions and six fumble recoveries. He has scored five career defensive touchdowns.
â€œI think I fit their pedigree of linebackers, guys that can run, big, strong guys that play different things,â€ Thomas said.
Thatâ€™s what the Ravens are looking for from Johnson to a lesser extent.
The team is likely to expand the role of Pro Bowl inside linebacker Bart Scott, a former dime back and college safety, on third downs. Also, oft-injured former second-round draft pick Dan Cody and special-teams star Gary Stills could operate as situational pass rushers.
Johnson acknowledged that the Ravens have some gaps in their roster. Currently, the defending AFC North champions need a starting running back, fullback and right tackle.
â€œThere are obviously some holes to fill, thereâ€™s a lot of things that have to happen to fill those holes,â€ Johnson said. â€œBut we definitely have the talent to make another run again.â€
NOTES: The Ravens continued to negotiate with running back Jamal Lewisâ€™ agent, trading contract proposals throughout this weekend. Itâ€™s believed that something could happen with Lewis within the next few days.
Meanwhile, the agent for running back Corey Dillon has narrowed the list of teams heâ€™s interested to Baltimore, the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets. Dillon, 32, could represent a potential fallback option for Baltimore if negotiations unravel with Lewisâ€™ agent, Mitch Frankel.
Former Tennessee Titans running back Chris Brown has expressed interested in playing for Baltimore. The Titans released starter Travis Henry on Saturday and he immediately took a visit to the Denver Broncos.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland