OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- One by one, the Baltimore Ravens watched last season's top-ranked defense in the NFL get slowly dismantled at the start of free agency.
First, it was leading tackler C.J. Mosley going to the New York Jets. Then, it was Terrell Suggs, the face of the defense, surprisingly joining the Arizona Cardinals. Lastly, it was sacks leader Za'Darius Smith cashing in with the Green Bay Packers.
The Ravens responded on Wednesday by giving a monumental contract to safety Earl Thomas, who received the richest deal for a non-quarterback in the franchise's 24-year history. There's a reason Baltimore struck a four-year, $55 million deal with the last remaining member of the "Legion of Boom" in Seattle.
Thomas is a leader. He's a playmaker and the most feared ball hawk in Baltimore since Ed Reed. He's a critical first piece in rebuilding the best defense in the league.
Beginning free agency with $26 million in cap room (their most in recent memory), the Ravens were expected to make an uncharacteristic splurge. Many assumed Baltimore would pursue Le'Veon Bell, but Baltimore went with value at running back with Mark Ingram and went all out for the top free safety available.
Few teams hold the free safety position in such high regard as the Ravens, and Baltimore's track record backs it up. When the Ravens set the record for the fewest points allowed in a 16-game season in 2000, Rod Woodson was patrolling center field. When Baltimore ranked No. 1 in defense in 2006, Reed was frustrating quarterbacks by always finding the ball. When the Ravens had the NFL's top defense for the second time in team history, Eric Weddle was quarterbacking the defense and helping disguise coverages.
From Reed's departure in 2013 to Weddle's arrival in 2016, Baltimore struggled at finding a difference-maker at that spot. The Ravens went through nine starting safeties, missing in free agency (Michael Huff, James Ihedigbo and Kendrick Lewis) and in the draft (Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks).
The Ravens clearly made the decision that replacing Weddle, who was cut last week, was a top priority. They would spare no cost in the last line of defense, especially with Odell Beckham Jr. and A.J. Green making big plays in the division and Ben Roethlisberger still throwing deep downfield.
Thomas' $13.75 million average per year is the largest ever for a Ravens player outside of quarterback Joe Flacco. His $32 million guaranteed is the most ever given by Baltimore to a free agent from another team.
The addition of Thomas fills a leadership void. The Ravens had passed the mantle of leader on defense from Ray Lewis to Reed to Suggs. It was supposed to be Mosley's turn next, but the Ravens weren't going to break the bank on an inside linebacker. Instead, Thomas becomes the new voice of a defense that has dominated teams for two decades.
Thomas also will make quarterbacks -- the Ravens play Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson this season -- think twice about throwing deep. Last season, cornerbacks Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey led Baltimore with two interceptions each. Thomas had three interceptions last season -- in four games. Thomas' 28 interceptions are the third most in the NFL since 2010.
The obvious concerns with Thomas are age and health. He'll turn 30 in May and has missed 19 games over the past three seasons after suffering two breaks in his left leg.
The Ravens privately like that Thomas has an edge and will play with something to prove. After so many questions surfaced with the losses on defense the past two days, Baltimore believes it provided a bold answer by landing Thomas.