During an injury-riddled season last year, the Ravens' secondary was uncharacteristically vulnerable because of constant personnel changes at cornerback.
Largely because of that problem, the Ravens' otherwise strong and eighth-ranked defense finished 23rd in the NFL in pass defense, as they allowed 248.7 passing yards per game.
The Ravens didn't exactly overhaul the secondary this offseason, but did sign former Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Kendrick Lewis to a three-year, $5.4 million contract as their new starting free safety. And they're banking on healthy seasons from starting cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb this year after they battled a Lisfranc foot sprain and a back injury, respectively, last season.
"I think it's going to work," retired Atlanta Falcons safety and Woodlawn standout Keion Carpenter, a 105.7 The Fan radio analyst, told The Baltimore Sun. "They were one of the worst in the league last year, so it can't do anything but get better. I think they brought in some solid guys. That was the weakest link on the team. If they can shore that up, the sky is the limit for the Ravens this year."
The biggest move the Ravens executed involving the secondary was signing Smith to a four-year, $48 million extension that included a $13 million signing bonus and $21 million in total guaranteed money. Smith was moving well during offseason practices and appears to have regained the form he had before suffering a foot injury last October against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"I think prior to Jimmy getting hurt, he was a top rising young corner," Carpenter said. "He earned that money regardless of the injury. Now that he's got it, just step up and play. You don't have to worry about the financials. Your family is taken care of, so go out and prove you're worthy of what they've given you.
"With him on one side and Lardarius being healthy, it takes a lot of pressure off the safety play. With the front seven playing the way they've always played, you've got a good solid group back there."
Webb restructured his contract this offseason, reducing his salary cap figure from $12 million for this year to $9.25 million.
He dealt with a painful back injury for most of last season after he suffered a hematoma during the second day of training camp that pressed on a nerve and eventually caused his leg muscle to atrophy and prevented him from running full speed.
Webb finished last season with 46 tackles and one interception in 13 games with 11 starts. He previously tore both anterior cruciate ligaments in his six-year NFL career.
"If Webb stays healthy, he's one of the most underrated corners in the league," said Carpenter, who played in the NFL for five seasons with the Falcons and Buffalo Bills and intercepted 16 career passes. "I've always loved his game and had total respect for his game. It's just about being healthy. I think for him it's just a mental thing. If he can mentally not worry about a recurring injury or another injury, he's going to be the anchor and the leader back there this year."
Lewis was the Texans' leading tackler last season with 84 and had two interceptions and three forced fumbles. He has played in the NFL for five seasons, registering 256 career tackles and nine interceptions.
He played virtually every snap last season and allowed 20 receptions on 33 passes thrown in his direction for 252 yards and one touchdown as opposing quarterbacks had a cumulative 69.3 passer rating against him, according to Pro Football Focus.
"Solid guy, solid guy," Carpenter said. "The Ravens were so bad that he's a tremendous upgrade. He doesn't need to come in and be like an Ed Reed and be a world beater. He just needs to come in and play solid and don't screw it up. Just do your job and everything else will fall into place."
Last season, the Ravens intercepted just 11 passes. That ranked in the bottom third of the NFL. In an AFC divisional round loss to the New England Patriots, quarterback Tom Brady passed for 367 yards and three touchdowns as he repeatedly targeted reserve cornerback Rashaan Melvin.
"I don’t think there’s going to be any doubt that we’re going to be so much better than we were last year," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said this spring. "I just really feel like there’s a lot of depth back there, and what’s really, I think, going to make it good is the competition.
"I don’t think anybody has a spot locked up, and I think everybody has to compete, and they have to compete at the highest level, and I think they will. I’m really expecting good things out of them.”
The only unsettled starting position is at strong safety, where former New York Giants starter Will Hill and former first-round draft pick Matt Elam are competing for the starting job. Elam has had two disappointing seasons. Hill was solid for the Ravens last year as he emerged as the starting free safety after serving a six-game suspension for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy while with the New York Giants.
Hill was the frontrunner at the position following the Ravens' offseason practices.
"I think competition is what's going to make both of those guys better," Carpenter said. "Anytime you're competing for a job, it's going to be bring the best out of you. At the end of the day, competing will be good for both of them."