Ravens make big splash by retaining Brandon Williams to anchor defensive line

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens accomplished what many once presumed was unthinkable: They held onto nose tackle Brandon Williams by reaching an agreement in principle Thursday night.

After losing so many rising young players -- Kelechi Osemele, Pernell McPhee, Rick Wagner, Kyle Juszczyk -- in recent years, the Ravens made a push this past week to retain Williams. A third-round pick in 2013 from Division II Missouri Southern State, Williams became one of the top players in free agency.

Terms: Five-year, $54 million deal that includes $27.5 million guaranteed. The average of $10.8 million per season is the highest for a nose tackle and ranks eighth among defensive tackles. Williams' guaranteed money is seventh-highest among defensive tackles.

ESPN 150 ranking: No. 1

Grade A: He’s No. 1 on ESPN’s free-agent rankings. It doesn’t get any better than this. The Ravens believe Williams is the best nose tackle in football, and they backed that up with their tireless pursuit of him. Williams is a premier run-stopper. He can rush the quarterback. He’s an unselfish leader. Now, Williams is an integral part of the future of the Ravens defense, along with cornerback Jimmy Smith and linebacker C.J. Mosley.

What it means: The Ravens will continue to have one of the best run defenses in the NFL. Williams either gets double-teamed (which frees up teammates) or makes the play in the backfield. How much of an impact does Williams make? With him on the field, Baltimore allowed 3.5 yards per carry since 2013. Without Williams, the Ravens gave up 4.2 yards per carry. Baltimore could have easily invested the money elsewhere because the Ravens have a history of developing interior linemen and were impressed by undrafted rookie Michael Pierce. But with defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan set to become a free agent after this season, the Ravens’ best tandem going forward is Williams and Pierce.

What’s the risk? Not much. With Williams being 28, there’s a natural concern that he could decline when he reaches 30. But the Ravens weren’t going to upgrade from Williams. He’s clearly better than the other top free-agent defensive tackles: Johnathan Hankins (No. 25 on ESPN’s free-agent rankings), Sylvester Williams (No. 29) and Alan Branch (No. 66). It became even more crucial that the Ravens retained Williams after inside linebacker Zach Orr surprisingly retired this offseason. Losing Orr and Williams would’ve been devastating for a run defense that ranked No. 5 in the NFL last season.