If you polled Ravens fans on which player they’re most excited to see in 2019, I’m sure Lamar Jackson would win.
The Ravens have seldom possessed an offensive player so fast and electric, and this one touches the ball on every play. A lot is riding on Jackson in his first full season as a starting quarterback.
Finishing right behind him in the poll, I’m sure, would be rookie wide receiver Marquise (Hollywood) Brown, a new offensive piece generating a ton of buzz. There’s also a lot of anticipation about veteran running back Mark Ingram II, another new piece, and second-year tight ends Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst.
I get it. The Ravens have rebuilt their offense around Jackson and they’re hoping for an uptick on that side of the ball. Inevitably, that generates excitement.
But amid all the interest in the 2019 offense, the Baltimore debut of safety Earl Thomas III seemingly is flying a bit under the radar.
Again, I get it – or at least, I think I do.
Thomas, 30, is a superb defensive player, one of his generation’s best. In nine years in the NFL, he has made the Pro Bowl six times and earned All-Pro honors three times. Intimidating both as a tackler and ball hawk, he has few active peers, if any, who have proven to be as much a difference-maker in the secondary.
If he’d signed anywhere else, all eyes would be on him and trumpets would be blaring as he prepares to make his debut.
But he signed with the Ravens, whose fans have cheered for so many Hall of Fame-caliber defensive players over the years that, well, having one has become kind of commonplace.
Ray Lewis played here for 17 years. He’s only one of the best linebackers ever, and already enshrined in the Hall. Ed Reed, who played here for 11 years, is poised to join his longtime running mate in Canton this summer. Terrell Suggs plays elsewhere now, but his 16-year run in Baltimore likely will propel him to a place alongside Lewis and Reed.
Thomas’ career arc is similar. Calling it impressive is an understatement.
But after nine years in Seattle, he may have landed in the only place where the reaction to his presence falls along the lines of “It’s great to have him, but been there, done that.”
For the record, that’s not the case with me. Thomas is right at the top of my list of Ravens I’m anxious to watch in 2019.
Maybe I can help ramp up the buzz. Pro Football Focus recently ranked its top 50 NFL players of 2019, and Thomas came in high, really high, at No. 18. Here’s what PFF wrote:
“Thomas led all qualifying safeties in overall grade (91.3) and coverage grade (90.6) before he suffered a season-ending injury (lower leg fracture) in Week 4 of last season. He showed he can still play at an elite level nine years into his NFL career and should only pick up where he left off in Baltimore if he can stay healthy.
“Among the 70 NFL safeties with at least 2,000 snaps played in the last five years, Thomas ranks first in overall grade (93.6) and coverage grade (97.2). He’s one of the very few free safeties who have dominated as a standalone centerfielder in the NFL, a rare talent by all measures.”
On PFF’s list, Thomas ranked one spot behind Aaron Rodgers and one spot ahead of Odell Beckham, Jr. – starry company. And he’s the only player among the top 18 who has changed teams during this offseason. That’s a big-time acquisition.
As PFF pointed out, the only concern is whether Thomas can stay healthy after suffering a broken leg last season, but the Ravens aren’t worried. It wasn’t a structural injury. Thomas is already on the practice field and has declared himself 100 percent ready.
The intensity and purposefulness Thomas brings to the job are already evident around the Under Armour Performance Center, but no doubt, the best of him is yet to come. In my book, it qualifies as must-see football.