Analysis

Ravens release Earl Thomas: Sorting out winners, losers

It's not every day that a top team releases a Pro Bowl-level player to whom it has made an enormous financial commitment after just one year, but here we are with Earl Thomas.

The Baltimore Ravens released the veteran safety Sunday after he had a fight in practice with defensive teammate Chuck Clark on Friday. Thomas, remember, made an obscene gesture to the Seahawks sideline as he was being taken off the field on a cart after suffering a season-ending leg injury in 2018, so volatile behavior toward his own team is not out of character. Are there any winners here? Not really. But it's all relative in the NFL, so some will come out better than others.

Winners (kind of)

  • The Baltimore Ravens: It's fairly obvious that Thomas' release was the culmination of multiple issues, not a single infraction. The Ravens have one of the strongest cultures in the league, though, and while this is a loss to the defense of a Super Bowl contender, that culture and veteran leadership allow the Ravens to absorb such a significant move that might split other locker rooms. The wording of the team announcement, which mentioned "personal conduct that has adversely affected the Baltimore Ravens" makes clear that the Ravens will fight not to pay the $10 million guaranteed salary Thomas was scheduled to make this year. Given that, as NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reported, player leadership supported a release or trade, they clearly believe this will be addition by subtraction.
  • Earl Thomas: His chipper farewell to the Ravens posted on social media suggests he is not terribly troubled by this turn of events. Thomas has never made a secret of his dream destination -- he literally walked into the Cowboys' locker room after a game to implore then-coach Jason Garrett to come get him. We thought it was crazy, but now Thomas has another chance to pick his destination and Dallas is reportedly interested.
  • Whoever signs Thomas for this year: The key here is the term limit -- Thomas will probably be a good addition for whichever team acquires him. Even at age 31, there aren't many secondaries that he would not upgrade. For a team that believes it is playoff-ready and perhaps missing only one piece, Thomas would be a smart signing. What happens after that is anybody's guess, but for a team that approaches the contract structure smartly, that might not matter.

Losers (sort of)

  • The Ravens' defensive backfield: Whatever the behind-the-scenes issues, Thomas is one of the best safeties of his generation. He had some struggles with the Ravens' defense last year, but he was very clearly the best free safety on the team. For now, his replacement in Baltimore's secondary is probably DeShon Elliott, a sixth round draft pick in 2018 who has never started a game. Important to note: The Ravens led the league in scoring and total defense after acquiring cornerback Marcus Peters prior to Week 7 last season.
  • The Ravens' bottom line: Yes, they will fight having to pay his $10 million salary this year, but the Ravens gave Thomas a $20 million signing bonus just 17 months ago. And depending on the outcome of the anticipated fight over the 2020 salary, there could be significant salary cap implications for next year, too.
  • The background checkers for interested teams: Thomas has now been jettisoned by two of the most widely respected and stable organizations in the NFL, which certainly does not reflect well on him. As talented as he is, Thomas will probably have to answer questions about why he wears out his welcome -- and teams, who will probably have to move quickly to land him, will have to be careful not to miss any issues that could create more problems for Thomas and his next franchise.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter at @judybattista.

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