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Ravens agree to $70 million deal with New Orleans safety Marcus Williams

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Having chased the on-field ghost of Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed for much of the last decade, the Ravens hope they’ve secured a coveted playmaker for the back end of their defense.

After major free-agent contracts for Eric Weddle, Tony Jefferson, and Earl Thomas brought mixed results at best over the last several years, Baltimore made its latest significant commitment at the position Tuesday by agreeing to a five-year, $70 million contract with New Orleans safety Marcus Williams, according to ESPN and NFL Network. The deal includes $37 million guaranteed and places the 25-year-old among the NFL’s top 10 safeties in terms of average annual value.

The contract cannot be made official until the start of the new league year on Wednesday afternoon.

Since being on the unfortunate end of the “Minneapolis Miracle” as a rookie in the 2017 postseason, Williams has become as one of the league’s top safeties with Pro Football Focus grading him first overall since the start of 2019 and ranking him as one of the five most valuable at his position since the Saints selected him in the second round out of Utah five years ago. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound free safety is known for his impressive range in zone coverage and has collected 15 interceptions and 38 pass breakups in 76 career games — all of them starts. Widely regarded as one of the top three at his position along with Jessie Bates — who received the franchise tag from Cincinnati — and the soon-to-be 30-year-old Tyrann Mathieu in this year’s free-agent class, Williams will try to be a younger version of what the Ravens hoped they were getting with Thomas three years ago, which was a $55 million contract that turned into a disaster lasting all of 17 months.

Williams missed only five games over his first five seasons and had a strong 2021 campaign playing on the franchise tag for the Saints, collecting a career-high 74 tackles with two interceptions, eight pass breakups, and a forced fumble in 16 games. Coming off a poor 2021 in which the Ravens finished 19th in points allowed, 25th in total yards surrendered, 32nd in passing yards allowed, and 28th in defensive efficiency, general manager Eric DeCosta hopes Williams will be critical to improving the secondary, limiting big pass plays, and increasing takeaways after Baltimore finished tied for 26th with only nine interceptions last season and tied for 23rd with 10 in 2020.

“Our inability this year to create turnovers was probably an issue for us, and I would love to see us make the play this year coming up — intercept more passes, cause more fumbles, be more disruptive,” DeCosta said early last month. “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, it becomes imperative that we always have a strong back end with good players and depth as well.”

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Williams is the latest in a long list of safeties who will attempt to bring Baltimore some of the dynamic safety play its lacked since Reed’s departure following Super Bowl XLVII. Early draft picks Matt Elam (2013 first round) and Terrence Brooks (2014 third round) as well as a number of cheap veterans didn’t pan out, and Weddle was the only significant free-agent signing of the last several years to live up to his contract — though even that four-year, $26 million deal was terminated before its final season. And while DeShon Elliott showed some promise in his first season as a starter next to strong safety Chuck Clark two years ago, injuries cost the 2018 sixth-round pick and current free agent a whopping 37 games over his four seasons in Baltimore.

Williams’ arrival should now allow new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald to deploy 2021 third-round pick Brandon Stephens in a variety of ways after the 6-foot-1, 213-pound defensive back started 11 games in place of the injured Elliott and also saw action at slot cornerback, which became more notable with last week’s release of Tavon Young. Stephens — who only moved to corner upon transferring to Southern Methodist in 2019 — could also prove valuable as a third safety and matchup option for tight ends, giving Macdonald more of a Swiss army knife in the secondary to go with his four projected starters.

Stephens finished with 78 tackles and four pass breakups in 17 games as a rookie.

“A few years ago, he was a running back — if you think about that — at UCLA, and then primarily [in 2020] was a corner with some safety,” DeCosta said in early February. “I think what he did this year was pretty impressive, and what I can tell you is he’s a talented guy, he’s got a lot of physical traits, [and] he’s also got a lot of personality traits that should allow him to really succeed. We expect him to make a jump.”

At a position where development is filled with ups and downs — such as Williams’ own low point against Stefon Diggs in the 2017 divisional round — the Ravens will be glad to have a more polished safety who’s just entering his prime and age-26 season. And while no one can possibly live up to the legacy left behind by Reed, a more dynamic presence on the back end — as well as the healthy returns of Pro Bowl cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters — go a long way for a defense and team hoping to return to Super Bowl contention in 2022.

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