The news came down a week before free agency that the Ravens had cut safety Eric Weddle. It was a surprising development to running mate Tony Jefferson, but not totally unexpected. He knew changes were coming to a Baltimore defense that finished the season ranked No. 1 in the NFL but featured a few important pieces hitting free agency.
Then, Ravens lifer Terrell Suggs signed with the Cardinals, edge rusher Za’Darius Smith signed with the Packers and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley signed with the Jets. Just like that, 17 Pro Bowl appearances and 11 All-Pro nominations had departed the DMV.
“It was tough to see those guys leave because when I first got there, they were there, and they had already established what it meant to be a Raven,” Jefferson reflected during a visit to the NFL Network headquarters on Monday. “I learned from them, watched them and just to see them leaving, it hurts. I knew maybe one or two guys I was thinking weren’t going to be back. But not all of them. I didn’t think all of them would be gone.
“It was really kind of breathtaking to kind of understand that everybody’s gone. You were just the No. 1 defense and then you see talent like that leave, guys who were detrimental in getting us to that point. But there’s nothing you could really do at that moment. Those types of moves are made by people who are above your pay grade, that’s just their job. I’m more than happy that I’m still a Raven at that point.”
Jefferson hasn’t sat idle, either. The veteran strong safety, who himself arrived in Baltimore just two years ago via free agency, was already in the process of recruiting running back Mark Ingram and former Cardinals teammate Justin Bethel. After the Ravens signed Earl Thomas, Jefferson said his next move was to hit the film room.
He wanted to learn as much as possible about Thomas’ tendencies, and watching tape has been just as paramount as practice in that regard. He noted it wasn’t the first time he’d studied the ex-Seahawks star.
“I know exactly what he brings to the table,” Jefferson said. “He was always in the scouting report for the teams. We always had to know where 29 was, and I was on defense and I knew that. That was the game plan, watch 29, so I’m excited to be playing next to him and learning from him as well. …
“I’ve been watching him the past three days. He has incredible instincts to find the ball and he’s just a high-motor player, and I’m a high-motor player. Us just being able to play fast and make plays I think is going to do wonders for our defense. Plus, with his range at free, I’m watching, I’m like, I’m taking chances when I’m in man coverage. We play a lot of man and I’ve been asked to play a lot of man, cover the tight ends. If I want to take a chance I know that I got an instinctive baller back there who can make me right.”
Given all the defensive turnover, Jefferson expects to assume a bit of a different role both on the field and in the locker room. Both will have a void now that Suggs, Mosley, Weddle and Smith are no longer in the fold for the Ravens. Those defections coupled with the Cleveland Browns’ recent additions already have many overlooking the defending AFC North champions.
“I think it’s great. I love what they did,” Jefferson said of the Browns. “I love that they brought a lot more talent to the division. Obviously, Odell [Beckham] coming to the Browns is humongous. What he brings to the game is rare. Plus, with all the complements around him that he has, with Baker [Mayfield]. That brings a lot of challenges for opposing defenses, and then a defense has to play them twice a year, that brings that challenge as well. But we’re still defending the title. So until then it’s just he say, she say, it’s Madden. Until then you got to come strip the title from us. That’s just what it is. I feel like everybody does this every year, not specifically Cleveland or AFC North. There’s usually a team somewhere, I feel like everybody last year was talking about the Vikings. I don’t know if they made the playoffs or not. It’s just another situation like that to me. …
“You can sleep if you want, but we’re going to be out there playing ball, and let the cards come out how they do. We work a little harder, lift a little harder, run a little harder out there. So I’m excited.”