With the core of the NFL’s top-scoring offense still intact, the Ravens have invested in their defense this offseason. They signed linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe in free agency. They added inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison through the draft. They retained outside linebacker Matthew Judon with the franchise tag.
But internal change was already underway long before the Ravens’ first move. With some free agents set to move on and other standout players returning from injury, even starters were primed for a new role in defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s system next season.
The position changes for three significant contributors are not dramatic, nor are they as important as the big-name players added to the Ravens’ top-five defense. But the difference in responsibilities cannot be overlooked. On a defense that values versatility and flexibility, the Ravens still need players to fulfill the main role in their job description, whatever that happens to be.
Brandon Williams: Defensive tackle to nose tackle
A year after finishing with the NFL’s sixth-most efficient run defense, according to Football Outsiders, the Ravens slipped to No. 20 last season. The Tennessee Titans struck the fatal blow in their AFC divisional-round upset. It was a unit-wide failure: Linemen were blown off the ball, linebackers missed tackles, defensive backs took bad angles.
Up front, the Ravens did not hesitate to go heavy against Tennessee, sometimes sending in three defensive tackles in even non-goal-line scenarios. The 6-foot-1, 336-pound Williams rarely lined up over center. That was nothing new. Nose tackle was primarily Michael Pierce’s job.
But with Pierce signing a three-year, $27 million deal this offseason with the Minnesota Vikings, Williams is expected to slide inside just a few more feet in 2020. After Pierce’s emergence along the defensive line, Williams typically aligned as a two- or three-technique lineman, positioned over a guard or a guard’s outside shoulder. Now he’s back to being the team’s best option at nose tackle, where he started his career.
“Brandon was kind of playing out of position so we both could play at the same time,” Pierce told Glenn Clark Radio in March. “I think he’ll have an amazing year being back at nose.”
His responsibilities won’t change much. Both Pierce and Williams absorbed their share of rude shoves inside. But at a starting position that puts himself between the guard and center, Williams will probably be asked to hold the point of attack against more double teams.
The Ravens have other options at nose tackle this season — Daylon Mack and Justin Ellis will return for their second season in Baltimore — but none as good as Williams.
With Williams’ move, the team will turn to Campbell and Wolfe and rookie defensive tackle Justin Madubuike for a pass-rush boost at the line’s other interior position.
Marlon Humphrey: Slot cornerback to outside cornerback
The Ravens asked Humphrey, a natural outside cornerback, in Week 4 last season to start learning how to play slot cornerback. As defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt explained in January, the team wanted Humphrey to track Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., and having him line up inside helped the defense disguise its coverages.
“He did so well that I was just like, ‘Hell, let’s just keep him there,’ ” Hewitt said. “And it worked out.”
With Tavon Young (neck) out for the season, the Ravens needed a replacement nickelback. Humphrey was an unlikely choice: In 2018, according to Player Profiler, Humphrey had lined up in the slot on just 4.8% of his defensive snaps. But in a breakthrough season, at a position where he said “everything” was “really different,” Humphrey played just over half of his snaps inside — and earned All-Pro honors.
If Young can stay healthy, the Ravens will have maybe the NFL’s top pair of outside corners in Humphrey and Marcus Peters, another All-Pro selection. Humphrey’s bulldog approach in run defense was often underappreciated last season, but Young brings a different dimension to Martindale’s pressure-happy schemes. In 40 blitzes in 2018, he had two sacks and two hurries; Humphrey had none and one, respectively, on 37 blitzes in 2019, according to Pro-Football-Reference.
Wherever he lines up next season, Humphrey should find his footing easily. Their secondary will be all the better for it.
“It’s really made me see the game a lot better, because I already know what the corner is doing, and then on the nickel, I know how the corner is going to play it,” Humphrey said in January. “It’s been a new twist for me, but I’ve been doing all right with it for now. But I’m definitely happy [for] when Tavon comes back and he gets back in that spot and I’m back outside.”
Jimmy Smith: Cornerback to safety
The role of the longtime Ravens cornerback is maybe the most uncertain of any defensive player in transition this offseason.
After returning from a Week 1 knee sprain in early November, Smith played in the team’s remaining nine games, starting five, and finished the season having allowed a passer rating of just 67.8 in coverage, according to PFR. He twice played over 95% of the defense’s snaps, holding steady and keeping busy against the Los Angeles Rams and Buffalo Bills’ spread attacks.
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But with Young returning from injury, Humphrey set to move back outside and a strong rookie linebacker class possibly bumping safety Chuck Clark out of the box, Smith will have a different workload in 2020. Given his experience and ability, he’ll be an overqualified fourth cornerback whenever called upon.
But Harbaugh also indicated last month that Smith could spend time at safety, a transition Brandon Carr made rather smoothly last season.
"Our defense is based on that premise, the idea that guys can play multiple positions," Harbaugh said. "It's not unusual for us to move guys around. You'll see safeties playing linebacker, linebackers playing safety, defensive ends playing middle linebacker. From play to play, we really try to keep the offense from understanding who is where and [why]."
A deep-lying safety role would be a changeup for Smith, who’s been most effective when using his 6-2 frame to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage. As a safety, Carr would also take on a greater responsibility in the Ravens’ run defense. He missed just one tackle last season, according to PFR, but would have his ability tested in a different part of the field. Can he take the right pursuit angles? Can he process play-action plays?
At age 31, there’s not much Smith doesn’t know about the cornerback position. There’s still much to learn at safety.