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Ravens position review: Despite injury-filled 2020, cornerbacks should again headline defense

The Ravens entered last season with maybe the NFL’s best cornerback room: two All-Pros, an up-and-coming nickelback, another longtime starter and solid depth behind them. Injuries and illness, it seemed, were the only things that could get in their way.

And indeed they did. In a year that tested the unit’s patience and depth, the Ravens cycled through 10 cornerbacks, from stars like Marlon Humphrey to practice squad call-ups like Khalil Dorsey. By the end of the season, the Ravens had made clear just how good the unit could be. But it took a while to get there.

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In the ninth of a series of position reviews, The Baltimore Sun will examine the team’s cornerback situation. Next up is safety.

2020 in review

It wasn’t long before cornerbacks started falling. Iman Marshall tore his ACL in mid-August. Tavon Young tore his a month later, in a Week 2 win over the Houston Texans. The Ravens had built their roster to withstand blows to the position, but every week seemed to bring a new injury or coronavirus designation. In Week 14 alone, the Ravens lost Jimmy Smith to a shoulder injury and Marcus Peters to a calf injury (briefly) and allowed 355 passing yards to the Cleveland Browns.

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Statistically, the secondary fell well short of its historic end-of-2019 pace, when the Ravens gave up just 141.3 passing yards per game over their final nine games, including the playoffs. But the unit still finished sixth overall in pass defense (221 yards per game). And in playoff games against the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills, two of the NFL’s most efficient passing attacks, the revitalized Ravens gave up a combined 346 yards and just 5.9 yards per attempt.

Depth chart

Marlon Humphrey

Skinny: The 2017 first-round pick earned his second straight Pro Bowl honor after forcing an NFL-high and franchise-record eight fumbles. Humphrey again played most of the season out of position, lining up in the slot, and his coverage numbers fell off somewhat. But he finished third on the team in tackles (82) and had 11 passes defended, 2 ½ sacks and one safety.

Contract: In October, Humphrey signed a five-year contract extension worth $97.8 million overall, including a $20 million signing bonus. The 24-year-old is under contract through the 2026 season.

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Marcus Peters

Skinny: Nagging calf and back injuries limited Peters through the second half of the season, forcing him to miss his first games since 2017. He still led the Ravens with four interceptions and added a career-high four forced fumbles and his first career sack. Missed tackles were a problem for Peters, who had the worst miss rate (21.2%) of any Ravens defensive back, according to Pro-Football-Reference.

Contract: Peters, 28, is signed through 2022 and has a salary cap hit of $13.5 million in 2021. His 2021 salary of $11.5 million is already fully guaranteed.

Tavon Young

Skinny: Young had a strong training camp and was solid in the Ravens’ first two games before suffering his second torn ACL in four years. The nickelback, who previously missed all of 2019 with a neck injury, is expected to be ready for the 2021 season.

Contract: Young, 26, restructured his contract last season by taking a $2.85 million pay cut in 2021. His cap hit is now $6 million, and his three-year, $25.8 million extension is set to expire in 2022.

Jimmy Smith

Skinny: One of the NFL’s highest-rated corners over the season’s first three months, Smith helped stabilize the Ravens’ outside cornerback position. But after playing through minor aches, the injury-prone Smith was sidelined for much of December by groin, ribs and shoulder injuries. He returned for the postseason and finished 2020 with 27 tackles, including a sack, while allowing just a 57.4 passer rating in coverage, according to PFR.

Contract: Smith, 32, signed a one-year contract extension worth up to $5 million. The current cap hit in 2021 is $2.3 million.

Anthony Averett

Skinny: The 2018 fourth-round pick played in 10 games (four starts) and had a career-high seven passes defended and 27 tackles. Averett, who missed five games with a shoulder injury, allowed 33 completions and 353 yards on 44 targets, according to PFR, though much of the yardage came after the catch.

Contract: Averett, 26, is entering the final year of his four-year rookie contract. He has a cap hit of $1.1 million.

Davontae Harris

Skinny: Claimed off waivers in mid-November, Harris played in four games, including one start, before being placed on injured reserve with a thigh injury. He contributed on defense and special teams, forcing a fumble and posting 10 tackles.

Contract: Released after the season because of roster rules, Harris, 26, re-signed with the Ravens. The terms of the extension are unknown, but it’s likely a short-term deal.

Iman Marshall

Skinny: A preseason ACL tear sidelined the 2019 fourth-round pick, who’d missed most of his rookie year with a toe injury.

Contract: Marshall’s entering the third year of his four-year rookie contract. He has a cap hit of $1 million.

Khalil Dorsey

Skinny: The undrafted rookie from Northern Arizona appeared in six games, almost exclusively as a special teams contributor. Dorsey, promoted to the active roster in October, played five snaps on defense and 94 on special teams. He did not return after suffering a Week 9 shoulder injury.

Contract: Dorsey is an exclusive-rights free agent, meaning that if the Ravens offer him a league-minimum one-year contract, he can sign only with them.

Offseason questions

1. How soon will Tavon Young be ready for the 2021 season?

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The early reports are promising. Coach John Harbaugh said in January that Young was “moving around pretty good right now” and that he would “probably” return for organized team activities, which typically begin in May. Humphrey said Young has been walking around and that he expects him to return “nice and strong.”

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Young, when healthy, has been a valuable piece in the slot — fearless in coverage against big tight ends and shifty wide receivers, effective on corner blitzes and reliable in his tackling. His return would allow Humphrey to return to his more natural outside role and give Smith the flexibility to assume the kind of safety roles the Ravens had planned for him last year.

“I’ve tried to become a natural at [the slot],” Humphrey said last month. “I’ll keep kind of chopping at that [and] trying if I have to move there. Hopefully, Tavon comes back, and I won’t have to be there anymore.”

2. Can any young cornerbacks establish themselves?

In November, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said Smith was playing at a Pro Bowl level — and he’ll likely enter 2021 as the Ravens’ No. 4 cornerback once again. That’s good news for the Ravens and a challenge for players like Averett and Marshall, the team’s most recent draft picks at the position.

Averett hasn’t played more than 11 games in a season, and as his 2022 free agency looms, he faces a stacked depth chart in Baltimore. Marshall, meanwhile, has appeared in just three games total over his first two years. Injuries at the position are inevitable — just look at last year — and the two should have opportunities next season to prove they deserve regular playing time. But they’ll also face competition for snaps in every practice from young players like Dorsey and Harris. Consistency and availability will be critical.

3. Will the Ravens invest in the position this offseason?

The Ravens have drafted just one cornerback, Marshall, in the past two years, and he was a Day 3 pick. Even with Humphrey, Peters and Young all signed at least through 2022, the front office will need to find some new blood soon.

It’s not a huge priority this offseason, especially when the Ravens have such glaring needs elsewhere. But with Young and Smith’s worrisome injury history, it’d make sense for general manager Eric DeCosta to consider taking a mid- or late-round prospect in the draft.

Possible additions

In addition to their returning cornerbacks, the Ravens signed Chris Westry to a reserve/future deal last month, meaning he can work out with the team this offseason. The 6-foot-4 cornerback spent the past two seasons on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad and appeared in two games last season.

In the draft, Washington’s Elijah Molden is a Day 2 prospect who projects as a possible instant-impact slot cornerback. The Ravens could also add to their collection of big, physical outside cornerbacks in the draft’s later rounds, where Syracuse’s Trill Williams (6-2, 198 pounds) and South Carolina’s Israel Mukuamu (6-4, 205 pounds), among others, should be available.

Ravens position reviews

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