INDIANAPOLIS — In his three seasons at Colorado, Laviska Shenault Jr. was something of a triple threat at wide receiver, lining up at split end, flanker and in the slot.
Oh, and he also played tight end and halfback, so maybe quintuple threat is more accurate.
But don’t forget that he got snaps as a Wildcat quarterback, too. Make that a ... sextuple threat?
“He’s talented enough to play almost every position on the field except for lineman,” Buffaloes quarterback Steven Montez said Tuesday in Indianapolis. “He must have a blinking red light right above him, because if you lose where he’s at, he is going to make you pay for it.”
What makes Shenault a possible first-round Ravens target — his jack-of-all-trades adaptability, his brute-force athleticism — is also what will make him a nuisance for any defense that has to account for him on Sundays next season. The Ravens, maybe more than any other team at the NFL scouting combine, are preparing for those matchup inevitabilities. On their defense, versatility is almost a prerequisite.
At outside linebacker, the Ravens are well positioned to retain pending free-agent outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who led the team in sacks and dropped into coverage over seven times per game last season, according to Pro Football Focus. At safety, Chuck Clark and Earl Thomas III seemed to blitz from the box as often as they covered center field. At cornerback, Marlon Humphrey earned All-Pro honors for his work in the slot — a position he’d never played, not even in college.
There are already questions about the makeup of next season’s defense, just as there were last offseason. Holes at inside linebacker and defensive tackle could open soon. But the Ravens know what they want in free agency and the draft. It’s what then-coordinator Rex Ryan desired over a decade ago, general manager Eric DeCosta explained Tuesday, and what Don “Wink” Martindale still does today.
“He loves players who can do different things, who you can use to disguise the defense, who can be used in different situations in lieu of injuries and things like that, [whom] you can play in different spots,” DeCosta said. “When we evaluate players, we’re always trying to find out how much they can do. Can they play inside the box? Can they play on the edge? Can they drop? Can they rush the passer? Are they smart players? Can they play multiple positions? Can corners play safety? Can safeties play corner?
“All those types of things really do factor into the evaluation process. They help you build a roster, No. 1. But on game day, they also help you create different looks that confuse the offense. And that’s a big part of what we do.”
It is no surprise that the two defenders maybe most connected to the Ravens’ No. 28 overall pick are sideline-to-sideline inside linebackers. LSU’s Patrick Queen was among college football’s most impressive linebackers in pass defense, while Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray averaged more than a tackle for loss per game.
With Martindale’s league-leading blitz rate, the Ravens need just about everyone under 270 pounds capable of collapsing the pocket and holding their own in coverage. In the NFL, that can mean one-on-one responsibilities against a running back who runs routes like a wide receiver.
Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn doesn’t need to be reminded. In the NFC South alone, there’s the Carolina Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey (1,005 receiving yards in 2019) and the New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara (nearly 700 receiving yards per season since his 2017 debut). And there’s only so much overlap in the skill sets required to cover a running back out of the backfield, a towering tight end over the middle or a downfield threat at wide receiver.
“So finding matchups and having different styles of player to put into those matchups, that's critical,” Quinn said. “And so that's what I look for. Not only does one size doesn't fit all, one size doesn't fit anything.”
No offense last season might have proved that more often than the Ravens’. When opponents skimped on speed to better handle the Ravens’ rugged rushing attack, quarterback Lamar Jackson ripped off long runs outside the tackles. When opponents went light in the box, offensive coordinator Greg Roman asked tight end Nick Boyle and fullback Patrick Ricard to mow defenders over.
“The skill talent that's come in on offense [across the NFL] is going to continue to get faster and more athletic,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said during a conference call last week. “That's what the college game is, and that's made its way to the NFL. You better have linebackers that can run all day long and cover, and you better have safeties that can be interchangeable, can play high, can play low and can really run in range.”
NFL coaches and officials seem to delight in their potential. Zack Baun, a dual-threat high school quarterback who starred at outside linebacker for Wisconsin last season but might project best as an inside linebacker, said Thursday that one team he’d met with in Indianapolis “identified me as the ‘toy’”; he was just that fun to imagine playing with.
With a projected nine picks in April’s draft, including seven in the first four rounds, the Ravens have significant capital and flexibility. They could shoot for anyone from Queen — “I'm fast, explosive, can stop the run, can play pass coverage,” he said Thursday, “so I'm just very versatile in what I can do” — to another Clark, who lasted until the sixth round in 2017.
Whomever DeCosta takes for the defense, whatever their arrival date in Baltimore to meet with the media, they can expect expect the Ravens to offer an official team cap. It looks good in photos.
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After that, they should expect to start wearing a couple more hats. That versatility looks even better on game day.