Ravens' need at safety position just as pressing as at cornerback

The Ravens return safety Matt Elam -- who struggled in 2014 -- and not much else at the position.
The Ravens return safety Matt Elam -- who struggled in 2014 -- and not much else at the position.(Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

For the next four weeks before the start of free agency, and again during the lead-up to the NFL draft, there will be a lot of focus on how the Ravens address the cornerback position.

It is a fair question, given the tenuous contract status of Lardarius Webb, the injury recoveries of Jimmy Smith and Asa Jackson, the lack of quality depth at the position and the struggles the group endured this past season.


But a solid argument could easily be made that the Ravens' need for a safety is even more pressing.

The Ravens currently only have two safeties under contract: Matt Elam, a first-round pick in 2013 who is coming off a nightmare season; and Terrence Brooks, a third-round pick last year who tore up his knee in mid-December and is no lock to be ready for the start of the 2015 season.

Elam and Brooks will have company soon. Third-year safety Brynden Trawick is an exclusive rights free agent, and the Ravens figure to tender him a contract, though he has almost exclusively played special teams. Will Hill and Anthony Levine are both restricted free agents, and the Ravens will probably retain both. Levine, however, was used mostly at cornerback last season.

Two other safeties who started games for the Ravens in 2014 -- Darian Stewart and Jeromy Miles -- are unrestricted free agents and don't appear to be priorities to re-sign for a team that won't have an abundance of salary cap space.

So the Ravens will head into the heart of the offseason with a tentative starting safety pairing of Hill and Elam, which won't exactly inspire a lot of confidence with the team's fan base.

Hill was solid at times in 2014, and he made one of the biggest defensive plays all season with his interception return for a touchdown against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. But he was hardly a consistent playmaker or an intimidating force in the middle of the field.

Tom Brady and the New England Patriots consistently challenged the Ravens in that area and moved the ball at will in the AFC divisional playoff game. That, of course, wasn't all on Hill, but he certainly didn't make the Patriots think twice about doing it.

He also hasn't proven that he can be counted on to stay out of trouble off the field, either.


Elam, meanwhile, missed two big tackles in that game against the Patriots, one leading to a touchdown. His performance capped a lost season for the safety. It's too early to call Elam a bust, but the early indications aren't good. He regressed badly in his sophomore season, proving to be a liability in coverage and consistently missing open-field tackles.

The Ravens have to hope that Elam regains some confidence and can be salvaged. Either way, it would be tough to consider him a viable starting candidate based on how he performed last season. As for Brooks, even if he makes a quick recovery from his knee injury, he looked nowhere near ready to be an every-down starter during limited opportunities last year, and he'll obviously miss out on many reps in the various offseason minicamps and organized team activities.

So what do the Ravens do? They can re-sign either Stewart or Miles, but that wouldn't qualify as an upgrade what was the NFL's 23rd-ranked pass defense.

They can spend on an outside free agent safety, but the drawbacks to that are the Ravens won't have a whole lot of salary cap room, and it's not an overwhelmingly impressive list, especially if the Patriots apply the franchise tag to Devin McCourty, as expected.

Beyond McCourty, you have veterans like Antrel Rolle -- and he is coming off a very poor season -- and guys like Mike Adams, Rahim Moore, Nate Allen, Louis Delmas and George Wilson.

Or the Ravens could use a high draft pick for a third consecutive year on a safety, a scenario that may not give them the immediate help they need.


Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged last season that safety is one of the toughest positions as it pertains to making the tradition from college to the NFL. Elam can certainly vouch for that, as can other recent first-round picks, like the New Orleans Saints' Kenny Vaccaro, the New York Jets' Calvin Pryor and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Mark Barron.

Any way you look at it, the Ravens have plenty of questions at safety and no clear answers. The good news is they have several months to find them.