Ravens coach John Harbaugh had seen enough of Tavon Young in four practices to determine he was performing well on the comeback trail.
Harbaugh and Young will get more evaluations once training camp starts in late July, but the third-year cornerback appears close to 100 percent after suffering a torn ACL a year ago.
“For the first time, it looked like, to me, he really got past the trepidation coming back off the knee [injury] – if that’s the right word,” Harbaugh said of a recent practice. “I thought today he let it cut loose a little bit more and looked really good.”
Young is turning his hips and running with receivers again. The burst is back and so is the acceleration in and out of cuts. The lateral movement appears fine and the closing speed is good.
But maybe most importantly, Young is putting his hands on receivers again in press coverage, which means he is planting his feet and pushing off. And it’s not just against outside receivers, but big tight ends in the slot or coming off the line of scrimmage.
“I feel great. I spent a lot of time in the training room in the offseason – the whole offseason, during the season – just working on my knee running, getting it strong,” Young said. “Now, this is my first time playing football in almost a year, and I feel good, and I feel like I’m back to myself.”
Young’s return gives the secondary more depth and makes it possibly one of the team’s strongest units compared to the last couple of seasons when the defensive backfield had become the Achilles heel.
Depending on cornerback Jimmy Smith’s return from a ruptured Achilles tendon, the Ravens have two good cornerbacks in Smith and second-year player Marlon Humphrey on the outside. Young and veteran Brandon Carr will battle inside for the nickel position with Maurice Canady and rookie Anthony Averett also battling for playing time.
If Young plays like he did in 2016, he’ll become the starting nickel back. That means he’ll be on the field almost as much as a starter. More teams are playing with five defensive backs instead of a base defense because more teams are passing.
As a rookie and fourth-round pick out of Temple in 2016, Young started 11 games. He finished with 53 tackles, two interceptions and knocked down eight passes. Young prefers playing over the slot and will be matched up with a No. 3 or No. 4 receiver.
“Oh, I like nickel,” Young said. “I feel like you can do a little bit of everything. You can get sacks, strips, fumbles — all of that — interceptions and tackles for loss. I feel like nickel — that’s where the action is — and I like that.”
Young will also be lined up against bigger tight ends at times, even in practice. The Ravens have two new rookie tight ends in Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews, who weigh 250 and 256 pounds, respectively. Hurst is 6-foot-4 and Andrews is an inch taller.
Young stands at a 5-9 and weighs 177 pounds, but he has battled and beaten the odds before. Remember, Young didn’t go to a big football school like USC or Ohio State.
Even though he didn’t play last season because of the knee injury, Young’s thicker torso is evidence he spent a lot of time in the weight room.
There was certainly time to rest. In fact, Young had plenty of time to heal and prepare because his injury happened on June 1, 2017, during an OTA practice.
“I talked to a lot of people. I talked to [Lardarius] Webb last year,” Young said. “He tore his ACL, too. So, I talked to him. I talked to a lot of veterans. I just talked to a lot of teammates, coaches, everybody. I was just ready for it, and I just took the challenge.
“That was one of the things that kind of cheered me up. After I got hurt, I realized I had a lot of time to get healthy. I didn’t have to rush back into it or come back midway through the season. I came back at comfort, and now I just let loose.”
It’s been a long process, but if it goes as expected Young will become a productive cornerback again.
“It felt like a gift just to be back — be back with my teammates,” Young said. “There’s nothing like that. Last year, I felt isolated sometimes, because I was always in the training room, and they were always practicing. I was looking out the window. But just to be back out here with these guys is a blessing.”