For most of the past four years, the news that Anthony Averett rolled his ankle at Thursday’s practice would not have inspired great anxiety among Ravens fans.
Averett was the definition of a roster luxury — a cornerback with Alabama pedigree and the talent to go step for step with the NFL’s most gifted receivers who might never actually be asked to start.
But when he popped up on the Ravens’ injury report three days before the team’s game against the Denver Broncos, it was a big deal — possibly just as big, for those following closely, as Lamar Jackson’s sore back. This was a testament to Averett’s early-season play and to his essential standing in a position group hollowed out by injuries.
The level of concern over his ankle spoke volumes about how far he had come. Averett did not know if he would be able to go in Denver. The fact that he played 59 of 61 defensive snaps in a 23-7 win, and allowed just two catches on seven balls thrown his way, added to the sense that he’s breaking out.
“It’s a blessing,” Averett said. “And honestly, I’m so locked in that I … I am enjoying it. I am enjoying my success, but I’m just so locked in right now.”
It’s as if the soft-spoken New Jersey native does not want to trifle with his advancement by speaking about it too openly. But those who have listened to Ravens coaches talk about Averett over the past several years know their confidence in him is nothing new.
John Harbaugh has referred to him as a starting-caliber cornerback. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has done his boss one better, describing Averett as a Pro Bowl talent. He even got cross with a reporter who wondered if his praise was a ploy to pump up Averett’s self-belief.
“I’m happy for him,” Martindale said Friday. “I’m genuinely happy for the guy himself because it’s one of those things … And we’ve all seen it — when you go somewhere and you meet somebody special, and they might not know that they’re special yet. He’s reaping all the success of all the hard work he’s done. And I’ve said this for three years now about him: He doesn’t care who he’s covering; he just goes and covers them. And that’s what everybody else is seeing now because he’s playing full-time.”
Averett, 26, welcomes the expectations that come with Martindale’s glowing assessment. “It’s a blessing just to have a coach like that,” he said. “Shoot, he gives me even more confidence.”
Here’s the thing about Averett: he has done this before.
He was an absurd athlete at Woodbury High School in South Jersey, intercepting five passes and making 106 tackles as a safety while rushing for 1,278 yards and throwing 14 touchdown passes on the other side of the ball. His high school coach, Zack Valentine, told Averett he needed to be a cut above every time he stepped on the field. His talent demanded such accountability, and Averett did not shy away from it. Oh, he also long jumped more than 25 feet, best in the nation among all high school competitors in 2013 and second-best in New Jersey history behind a guy named Carl Lewis, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist.
Then, Averett arrived at Alabama and realized Nick Saban’s program was overflowing with athletes just as gifted as he. He redshirted his first year, got into one game against Western Carolina in his second, and played on special teams his third. Among the players who passed him on the depth chart at cornerback, the new position he was learning, was a second-generation Crimson Tide star named Marlon Humphrey.
“It was definitely hard,” Averett recalled. “Just being a competitor, everybody was the man where they came from and I was the man where I came from, so it was hard.”
Averett did not give up. He soaked in lessons from Saban, widely regarded as one of the finest secondary coaches in football, and bided his time. He learned to enjoy mano-a-mano battles on the outside and “have that dog, that little something different in you.” He also learned to play within a system that did not ask him to improvise in a mad hunt for interceptions.
In 2016, he started across from Humphrey and led the team with eight pass breakups. He broke up another eight in 2017 as Alabama rolled to the national championship. His persistence had paid off and prepared him for the waiting game he would play after the Ravens drafted him in the fourth round in 2018.
“I think it was a very similar situation — the way things [had gone] at ‘Bama,” said Humphrey, whom the Ravens drafted in the first round a year before they picked Averett. “[He] kind of waited his turn to play, like most guys do at ‘Bama, and [it was] kind of a similar situation here.”
Averett played in 11 games as a rookie and started seven between 2019 and 2020, but he was also a game-day scratch at times and spent a stretch on injured reserve with a fractured shoulder last season. No matter what nice things the coaches said about him, he wasn’t going to start over Humphrey, the team’s best defensive player, or Marcus Peters, one of the league’s top ball hawks.
His opportunity did not come until the week before this season’s opener, when Peters took an unlucky step while pivoting during a drill and tore his ACL. Harbaugh immediately said Averett would be the man to step in, and he has played all but six defensive snaps during the Ravens’ 3-1 start.
Humphrey joked that his reforged partnership with Averett makes for a first-class recruiting pitch to would-be Alabama defensive backs. On a more serious note, he said he never wondered how Averett would handle stepping in for Peters.
“Anytime I look over, I’ve always trusted [that] he was going to do his job, and he was expecting me to do mine, as well,” Humphrey said. “He’s been playing really good football. I think it’s a surprise to the fan, but it’s to no surprise of the coaches and the players here because we’ve seen him do it time in and time out in practice.”
With his colorful braids — red on the right, blond on the left — Averett is easy to spot on the practice field. He accentuates his remarks with emphatic hand gestures. But he’s not a barker like Humphrey or a risk-taker like Peters. When he was preparing for the draft, some scouts questioned his ball skills. Averett, who played wide receiver briefly in college, never understood this. He viewed his primary job as blanketing the receiver in front of him, even if the guy was an All-Pro.
“He’s a very young, quiet guy,” veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “He kind of has a lackadaisical approach, but he’s really locked in. He learns a lot. Just this year alone, we talk a lot about being in a full-time role is a little different than spot playing; you kind of have to up your game in a lot of ways. You have to be a little bit more savvy.”
Averett agreed with Smith’s assessment of his personality. He has the word “Humble” tattooed on his right forearm. His mother and chief inspiration, Carmen Davis (she’s the older sister of former Ravens tackle Bryant McKinnie), has always encouraged him to speak up more, to little avail.
“I stay to myself, man. I focus on my job,” he said.
But Averett was not uncomfortable when Martindale called him a Pro Bowl talent in front of his teammates. He did not feel any pressure. A coach was merely saying what he already believed.
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With no one in position to take his job and a chance to sign his second NFL contract after the season, Averett knows this is his moment.
“I definitely think I’ve made a name for myself,” he said.
Monday, 8:15 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 7