When the Ravens were preparing for their third preseason game last year, their top two healthy cornerbacks were Chykie Brown and Dominique Franks, two players who were eventually cut in November as part of a secondary shake-up. Behind Brown and Franks was a group of mostly undrafted free agents who didn't stick on the regular-season roster.
As the Ravens get ready to face the Philadelphia Eagles tonight at Lincoln Financial Field in their second preseason contest, their cornerback situation is far less concerning than it was a year ago. Even with Lardarius Webb again sidelined with an injury, the team has a healthy Jimmy Smith, along with a mix of battle-tested veterans and young, unheralded corners who are finally getting an opportunity.
But what remains unclear — and tonight's game against the Eagles' quick-strike offense might provide some clarity — is whether the Ravens have improved enough at the position. Training camp practices and this week's joint workouts with the Eagles have brought mostly uneven play from the cornerback group, which will be tested much more in the days ahead.
"I feel good about our cornerbacks," coach John Harbaugh said. "They're getting better every single day. They're competing, getting in people's face. They're playing press [coverage]. They're playing off [coverage]. They're playing aggressively, and that's what we want them to try to do, and they're doing it."
Last season, a wave of injures at cornerback prompted the Ravens to sign street free agents — remember Derek Cox? — scour the waiver wire or opposing practice squads, and use safeties such as Matt Elam and Anthony Levine in coverage. The Ravens' patchwork group held things together until it was picked apart by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in an AFC divisional round playoff loss.
Not wanting that to happen again, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome signed veteran free-agent corners Kyle Arrington and Cassius Vaughn, who have made 79 career starts between them, and drafted Tray Walker in the fourth round. Newsome also signed Smith, who missed eight games last year with a foot injury, to a contract extension and restructured Webb's contract to make sure he'd still be around.
"A lot of these guys that we've got have a lot of experience, and [the coaches] are giving the young guys that we have some game experience," Smith said. "In that regard, we're probably a little further ahead than we were last year."
Some of the other Ravens cornerbacks painted a much more optimistic picture than Smith.
"We have 10 guys that can and should play in the NFL — at least that's the way we see it in our [position] room and in the organization," said Asa Jackson, who started six games last year but was inactive for 11 of the team's final 13 contests, including playoffs, because of toe and knee injuries. "That's really rare to find that kind of talent."
Rashaan Melvin took it even further, saying: "We have guys that have a lot of ability and talent, and guys who are playing with a lot of confidence. That's what you need as a secondary. I'm very confident that we will become the best secondary in the league."
With Smith easing his way back into things after having foot surgery late last year, Melvin has probably been the team's most effective corner during training camp after being plucked off the Miami Dolphins practice squad in November and starting two regular-season and two postseason games for the Ravens in 2014.
Arrington, a seven-year veteran, has been as advertised, and should fill the slot corner role that Elam was forced into last year. But there are significant questions that surround the rest of the group, none bigger than Webb, who has missed a decent amount of training camp after essentially being sidelined for all of it last year. Webb struggled for much of 2014, and he didn't look like his former self early in training camp this year.
"Webb is a vet. He knows from the time he's coming back that he has to strap it on," Smith said. "But whoever is out there, I feel like he's going to do a good job. We have Cassius Vaughn, who is a starter, and we have Kyle, who is a starter. We have guys that can fill the void. I feel good when we go in every year. I don't ever doubt what Ozzie does."
Smith, Webb, Arrington and Melvin are the team's top four corners, and the Ravens will also have to find a spot for Walker, who is a developmental player. But knowing how many corners they went through last year and that Smith and Webb have been injury-prone, the Ravens need one or two more guys to emerge as legitimate options.
Vaughn, who started five games for the Detroit Lions last year, is the most proven candidate, but he hasn't distinguished himself in training camp. Jackson continues to battle injuries and inconsistency. Quinton Pointer, who has spent time on the practice squad of the Ravens, St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had a strong beginning to camp and even started the preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints. However, he has not been able to continue the momentum into recent practices.
"It's been a long, long road before I got to Baltimore," said Pointer, 27. "I've just been bouncing around the league. The opportunity that the organization and coaches have given me to compete against top-level guys, I just am trying to take advantage of it."
During the past couple of days, the Ravens cornerbacks struggled while matching up against Eagles receivers Jordan Matthews and Riley Cooper. On Thursday, Ravens defensive backs were flagged for pass interference three times against Matthews, two of those calls going against Arrington.
There were some positive plays, too, and Melvin, in particular, played well. But the Ravens know they'll need more consistency at the position.
"I think guys are competing hard," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "They're trying to go after balls. They're trying to break them up. We're trying to make interceptions. I think we're very competitive out here. … There's a lot of competition at a lot of spots, and guys are practicing hard."