Corey Graham exceeded the expectations of just about everyone beyond himself and the Ravens after he signed as a free agent two offseasons ago. He had been a special teams standout for the Chicago Bears before joining the Ravens, who promised him a chance to prove himself as a cornerback.
Graham entered the 2012 season fourth on the depth chart at his position, but after injuries to Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, he found himself in the starting lineup and rarely looked out of place. He would solidify a key position for the Super Bowl champs and his two interceptions of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning in the playoffs will be forever a part of Ravens lore.
Last season, the second of a two-year deal, Graham was the team’s nickel cornerback. While he wasn’t technically a “starter” in a traditional sense, Graham made five starts and played 688 defensive snaps, a dozen fewer than Haloti Ngata and more than players like Elvis Dumervil, Arthur Jones and Chris Canty.
So what’s my point? The loss of Graham in free agency, assuming he gets the full-time starting job he is looking for elsewhere, would leave a void in the Ravens secondary. That’s not to say the Ravens can’t find a cornerback in the draft or sign another someone with something to prove like they did with Graham. But the potential loss shouldn’t be underestimated.
As I have written numerous times, including in this story last summer, NFL teams are using three-receiver sets more than ever. According to Football Outsiders, offenses used those three-receiver sets, called the 11 personnel in coaching circles, on 51 percent of their plays in 2012, and while I don’t have fresher numbers in front of me, the frequency surely rose again in 2013.
Graham had a couple of rocky games last season -- that season opener in Denver quickly comes to mind -- but he was a solid performer in the secondary who graded out among the top 15 free-agent cornerbacks hitting the market this spring, according to Pro Football Focus. You can see why the Ravens would like to bring him back to Baltimore if he is interested in a reunion.
If Graham does not return, the Ravens have Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson on the roster as potential replacements at the nickel cornerback, though neither has made the most of the defensive opportunities they have gotten in training camp, the preseason and regular-season play. The Ravens could go the free-agent route, but it’s worth noting that they have taken five cornerbacks in the past five drafts.
It helps that the Ravens have a versatile cornerback in Webb who can play both inside and outside -- I think he is at his best when he is in the slot -- so it will give them flexibility if they must look for a potential replacement.
And while the need wouldn’t be as pressing as finding a couple of offensive tackles, a sure-handed wide receiver and a free safety, the Ravens must choose wisely when selecting a replacement for Graham should he need to be replaced.