Preston: Ravens make right picks to improve pass defense

During the past several seasons, there have been a lot of cornerbacks who have played for the Ravens, but few were good. Late in some of those years, it became painful to watch as top quarterbacks and receivers knocked the Ravens out of postseason contention.

It’s hard to win games in the NFL consistently with cornerbacks named Asa Jackson, Rashaan Melvin and Shareece Wright, especially in a league where rules favor the offense and a wide-open passing game.

So, it was a much-needed move by the Ravens to take Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey with the No. 16 overall pick in the draft Thursday, and then Houston outside linebacker Tyus Bowser in the second round Friday night. The Ravens added two more defensive players in the third round, Tim Williams and Chris Wormley, and that has apparently been the focus of this offseason.

The Ravens have other needs, but finally decided to do something about a recurring problem of not being able to cover the pass or provide pressure.

Most of the recent draft publications had Humphrey the second-highest-rated cornerback behind Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore, who went five picks ahead of Humphrey to the New Orleans Saints. Bowser is an intriguing pick because he was underused as a pass rusher at the University of Houston, but still closed out his career as a two-year starter with 211/2 sacks.

Even more impressive was that he had 81/2 sacks in eight games last season. He missed five games because of a fractured orbital bone.

The criticisms of Humphrey were that he gave up too many big plays and often bit on double moves. Those were the same knocks on Arizona cornerback Chris McAlister before the Ravens made him the No. 10 overall pick in 1999.

Those concerns were eventually proven correct. Just ask Jacksonville Jaguars receivers Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith, who tortured McAlister early in his career. But McAlister went on to play 10 seasons with the Ravens and was named a Pro Bowl performer three times.

Humphrey might not become as accomplished, but at least the Ravens are working with a top prospect and no longer taking in street free agents. With the exception of the New England Patriots and the Ravens, just about every team has a top playmaking receiver.

The Ravens face two of them four times a year in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown and Cincinnati Bengals’ A.J. Green. They didn’t have anyone to match up with the Dallas Cowboys’ Dez Bryant last season.

Maybe they do now. Humphrey won’t be on that level right away, but at least there is hope. Shutdown cornerbacks are hard to find. Most teams don’t have one, much less two, which is why there aren’t many on the free-agent market. And if there are, they cost a fortune.

In the Ravens’ case, they haven’t had a great one since McAlister left in 2009. They thought they had a good one in Jimmy Smith when they selected him with the 27th overall pick in the 2011 draft out of Colorado. But Smith has proven not to be a good hands guy.

And now he can’t stay healthy, which is another good reason to have Humphrey. I like the emphasis the Ravens have placed on the secondary. They added a big-time safety in Tony Jefferson during the offseason, as well as a solid cornerback in Brandon Carr.

They have a good, young and upcoming nickel back in Tavon Young and another interesting prospect in second-year cornerback Maurice Canady. To slow down these passing offenses, a team has to have cover guys and pass rushers, and now the Ravens have some of those players.

If the Ravens could have tackled some of Pittsburgh’s receivers inbounds late in the second game last year, they would have made the playoffs. Humphrey can tackle. No one questions that ability. He runs a 4.42 40 and has a giant wingspan with those long arms. He played only two years in college and that’s a concern because I question whether Ravens have the right coaching in place.

“I think we’ve done that,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said about improving the secondary. “We’ve gone after a portion of our team — the back end, the secondary — with a vengeance. We’ve done a great job as an organization in terms of getting that done. We’ve got some really good players back there and there’s going to be competition and we’re going to be darn tough to throw the ball against.”

Bowser is a physical specimen at 6 feet 3 and 250 pounds. He was used more as an edge setter at Houston even though he might have been the best athlete on the Cougars defense. On tape, he looks explosive and has a strong motor. The combination of size and athleticism makes him a good “go-fetch” candidate.

The Ravens needed a pass rusher, someone to play opposite Terrell Suggs. With Bowser and Williams, they have some young pass rushers who might be able to contribute along with Za’Darius Smith and Matthew Judon. The Ravens also added defensive tackle Wormley of Michigan.

“Oh man, that’s amazing,” Bowser said of playing with Suggs. “I got a chance to see him on film and get to see how he plays. I kind of critique my game off of him, too, so being able to have that chance to play with him, I’m speechless right now.”

While the Ravens talked about getting Joe Flacco more weapons and a better offensive line for the 2017 season, they have gone defense so far in the draft, and I like it. General manager Ozzie Newsome has a better record in drafting defensive players over offensive players and it seems the Ravens have gone old school.

Like Humphrey, I’m not sure the Ravens have the proper coaching in place to work with Bowser or Williams. Williams has burst, great change of direction and can stack and shed blockers. He has had some off-field problems, but sometimes you have to gamble on players. I like having a pass-rushing specialist.

Maybe it’s time for Harbaugh to bring in a tutor for some of these pass-rushing specialists. A lot of teams have them, but not the Ravens.

But that’s something they can look at down the road. The Ravens were good in stopping the run last season, but to improve their overall defense they have to defend the pass better. It appears they have done that in this draft.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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