When Justin Bethel entered the NFL, he saw special teams as his path to success.
When the Ravens entered free agency this offseason, they saw Bethel as their kind of player.
The union between the Ravens and Bethel, who agreed to a two-year contract with Baltimore last week, seems like a natural match.
Baltimore has signed three free agents this offseason – safety Earl Thomas, running back Mark Ingram and Bethel . While Thomas and Ingram will garner more headlines than Bethel, his acquisition again displays the value the Ravens put on special teams under Head Coach John Harbaugh. As a former special teams coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, Harbaugh’s reverence for special teams play is well-known.
Bethel is a cornerback and will be ready if called upon to play defense, but he knows his main role in Baltimore is to ball-out on special teams. He made the Pro Bowl three times (2013-15) as a special teamer with the Arizona Cardinals.
“I think I’ll be able to really help on the coverage units, field-position wise,” Bethel said during a conference call Tuesday. “We have a great punter (Sam Koch) and I’m excited to play with him. I know that we’ll be able to make an impact in that area, field position. I think one of the biggest things is just having a head coach who’s really special-teams minded and takes a lot of pride in that.”
The Ravens’ special teams will be going through a transition heading into next season. Special Teams Coordinator/Associate Head Coach Jerry Rosburg announced his retirement last week, and Chris Horton will be taking over as special teams coach.
However, the high standard the Ravens set for special teams play won’t change, and the move to acquire Bethel reflects that. When free agency began last week, Bethel thought he might remain unsigned for weeks, perhaps into April. That’s what happened last year when he inked a one-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons, and plenty of prominent NFL free agents remained unsigned as of Tuesday, like pass rusher Justin Houston and linebacker Clay Matthews.
However, the Ravens made signing Bethel a priority – although there was a slight delay. They didn’t speak to him until safety Tony Jefferson finally contacted Bethel and gave the Ravens his correct phone number. Jefferson and Bethel were teammates with the Arizona Cardinals, where Bethel spent six seasons before playing with the Atlanta Falcons in 2018.
“It’s kind of funny how it happened,” Bethel said. “I’m pretty sure everybody knows how aggressive Tony Jefferson likes to help recruit. He actually called me and was like, ‘Hey, our guys are trying to get in touch with you. Are you ignoring our calls? We haven’t heard back.’
“Apparently, they didn’t have the right number. They were calling my old number. We started talking and it felt like the right fit. It pretty much went down in like a day. It happened really fast.”
Bethel had lunch with Horton at the team’s facility Tuesday and came away impressed. He said it felt like he was talking to a “big brother.”
After seven years in the NFL, Bethel can become like a big brother on the Ravens’ special teams, joining linebacker/safety Anthony Levine Sr. as one of the leaders. Bethel knows he can’t count on getting reps at cornerback, where the Ravens are loaded with depth and led by Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr and Tavon Young.
But having an impact on special teams is Bethel’s forte. He feels strongly he has come to the right place.
“Special teams is something I can always help and give an immediate impact to,” Bethel said. “I’ve always been special-teams minded. Started in high school. Then got to college, started every game on special teams. That really helped me, because when I got to the league it was kind of easy for me to transition into playing special teams because I was already good at it.
“I always tell guys, special teams might not be the prettiest thing, but it’s something that can help your career last a lot longer. Don’t take special teams lightly.”