The Cleveland Browns clearly see an opportunity to take control of the AFC North this upcoming season.
The Ravens want to slam that window shut.
The Browns have stocked their offense by signing running back Kareem Hunt and trading for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who will pair with Jarvis Landry to form one of the most potent downfield threats in the league.
While Hunt will miss the opening eight games due to a violation of the league’s personal conduct policy, he will be fresh and available for a potential stretch run to the playoffs.
The Ravens countered the moves by signing Earl Thomas, the best available safety in the free-agent market. New general manager Eric DeCosta then signed cornerback and special teams ace Justin Bethel for added depth in an already-strong secondary.
Thomas adds an element of toughness and swagger to a defense that has lost some key components. He was part of the so-called “Legion of Boom” in Seattle, but is ready to create a new legacy in Baltimore.
“We’ve got big corners,” Thomas said. “We have a hot, active guy in Tony [Jefferson]. I just have to get used to the guys, man. We have to get in the lab and go to work. I can’t harp on the ‘LOB.’ That’s in the past.”
One of the initial challenges for DeCosta was creating some salary-cap space so the team wasn’t bogged down this offseason. He traded quarterback Joe Flacco and his $18 million contract to Denver for a 2019 fourth-round pick. DeCosta also released safety Eric Weddle and wide receiver Michael Crabtree, creating $12.2 million in salary-cap space.
He opted to stay away from offering big contracts to free agents C.J. Mosley, Za’Darius Smith, LB Terrell Suggs and John Brown. While the loss of those players created a void, the Ravens should be free to make additional moves over the long-term.
“We’re in good shape compared to other years,” DeCosta said. “I feel like we’re the kings of the world now. We still have some money available, and so we have some flexibility over the next couple weeks to make some additional moves if we want to do that.”
The Ravens still need to sign a couple of pass rushers to give that secondary some support. Former Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston would be the best fit.
In addition to Thomas, the Ravens signed running back Mark Ingram, who gives them a veteran presence in the backfield. He ran for more than 1,000 yards in two of the last three years. Ingram also has 125 receptions for 905 yards over the last three seasons. He will add another weapon to the Ravens’ offense.
Ingram and quarterback Lamar Jackson should provide an even bigger punch to the Ravens ground attack. They are going to need that ball-control offense to keep their defense fresh in a season that includes matchups against the Patriots, Texans, Rams, Chiefs and Seahawks, in addition to the AFC North opponents.
“I think it’s going to be dangerous; I think we’re going to be explosive,” Ingram said. “I think we’re going to change the game.”
DeCosta is confident both Thomas and Ingram will thrive in Baltimore.
“Both guys have always been players that we’ve admired in Baltimore,” DeCosta said. “Both guys really fit our culture, I think, with the style they play – aggressive, tough-minded. I think they’ll be fan favorites very quickly. I think the idea that we could bring in a player on offense and bring in a player on defense and be balanced initially was something that I thought would be nice.
“We got two outstanding players, two of the best players in the league over the last five years at their positions.”
Bethel was named to the Pro Bowl in 2013, 2014 and 2015 for his play on special teams. The Ravens could certainly use another playmaker.
The Browns opened at 14-1 to win the Super Bowl, whereas the Ravens are 40-1, according to Bovada Official.