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Regardless of who starts, Graham and Smith will be on field early and often

As we get closer to training camp, you’ll undoubtedly see plenty of stories about the various position competitions expected to commence when the Ravens have their first full-team practice July 25.

One of the main ones that figures to be highlighted is the battle between Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith for the starting cornerback spot opposite Lardarius Webb.

Graham, who the Ravens signed last offseason mainly to boost their special teams, was one of the unsung heroes during the team’s Super Bowl run. Stepping into a bigger role after injuries to Webb and Smith, Graham started the final eight games of the regular season and finished with 54 tackles and two interceptions. He was even better in the playoffs. It was the second of his two interceptions against the Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning in the AFC divisional round that set up Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal in double overtime.

Citing several metrics, the web site, Football Outsiders, ranked Graham as one of the most effective corners in the NFL last year.

Meanwhile, Smith, the former first-round pick, persevered through another year of injuries and inconsistency. In his second season, Smith missed five games, started two and finished with no interceptions and three passes defended. However, he was at his best in the playoffs and it was his defense on the San Francisco 49ers’ Michael Crabtree that keyed the Ravens’ late goal-line stand to secure a victory in Super Bowl XLVII.

Graham and Smith were both fixtures in the Ravens’ various offseason workouts and both looked in fine form at the mandatory minicamp earlier this month. Smith, in particular, looked much leaner and quicker than at any point of his young pro career, leading secondary coach Teryl Austin to say that he was like a “different guy.”

It would be a nice storyline, the veteran trying to hold off the youngster. But that’s about all it is.

The reality is that regardless of who starts, Graham and Smith will be on the field together more often than not. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome loves to say around draft time that you can never have enough cornerbacks, and it’s easy to see why.

Last season, the Ravens used five defensive backs or more on 837 of their 1,498 snaps in the regular season and the playoffs, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s 56 percent of the time, and that number only figures to grow with more and more teams opting for pass-happy attacks.

When the Ravens open the regular season Sept. 5, they’ll face a Broncos team with three prolific wide receivers in Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker. Who knows what interesting wrinkles Manning and company will have in store for the Ravens’ defense, but it’s hard to imagine any scenario where Webb, Graham and Smith aren’t on the field for most of the defensive snaps.

In including Webb, I’m operating under the assumption that he’ll be recovered from last season’s knee surgery and ready to play in the opener. That’s no sure thing. While all the reports have been positive that Webb is doing well in his recovery from knee surgery, he remains a work in progress. Webb still had a slight limp at times during the mandatory minicamp and he was not cleared to be a full participant.

Webb’s status is yet another reason that a perceived training camp competition between Graham and Smith is largely overblown. Both will be needed to play huge roles, both will be on the field more often than not and both could very well be the two starters if Webb isn’t ready or the Ravens opt to gradually work him back in the lineup. 

The bigger question as it relates to the cornerback competition are how many the Ravens take and who occupies the last two or three spots. The top four seem pretty set with Webb, Graham, Smith and third-year corner Chykie Brown, who has really improved over the past two years all while becoming a solid special teams player.

The Ravens also have veteran Chris Johnson, a former starter with the Oakland Raiders who the Ravens decided to re-sign in free agency; Asa Jackson, a fifth-round pick in last year’s draft who played sparingly during his rookie year; rookie seventh-round pick Marc Anthony; and undrafted free agent Moe Lee, who was singled out for his impressive play two weeks ago by Austin.

None of them figure to emerge as starters this coming season, but then again, nobody would have expected Graham to become an impactful starter and a postseason hero at this time last year either.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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