Kamalei Correa’s favorite part of the Ravens’ 17-16 win Thursday night over the Chicago Bears in their preseason opener was not a play he could pinpoint, though there were many to remember: any of his three sacks, his forced fumble, his interception.
“It wasn’t even about the game itself,” the third-year outside linebacker said. It was the setting: the Hall of Fame Game, playing on the same field where legends like Randy Moss and Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher looked on, “all these guys that I used to watch.” Canton, Ohio, was where the NFL’s forebear, the American Professional Football Association, was founded nearly a century ago, and Correa could appreciate his place in history.
“Man, it was just really neat to be in that atmosphere, the Hall of Fame spot, where it all started,” he said. “And man, it was just a really cool experience overall.”
Should Correa make the Ravens’ 53-man roster this season and begin to remake a career some already have written off as a bust, this training camp, and his standout preseason performance on national TV especially, will be remembered as where it all started.
In 37 snaps, Correa finished with six tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble, an interception and two passes defended. The necessary caveats apply — this is only preseason; he was dominant mostly against second- and third-stringers; these are the Chicago Bears we’re talking about. But the production in some ways outstripped the total production from his first two underwhelming seasons with the Ravens: 19 tackles, zero sacks, one forced fumble, zero interceptions and two passes defended over 25 games.
Correa was the top player in Thursday’s game, according to Pro Football Focus, his score of 92.2 surpassing the site's "Pro Bowler" threshold and crossing into "elite" status. No wonder former Ravens coach and current NFL Network analyst Brian Billick wrote Friday on Twitter that Correa "had his best game" in the NFL; few players in preseason history have ever posted such a stat line.
“Big step for him,” coach John Harbaugh said after Saturday’s training camp practice. “You know, the thing we've been talking about with Kamalei the whole time was the idea of, take how well he was practicing to the game, and that's exactly what he did. He's been practicing like that all through the [organized team activities], so to take that to the game was a big step for him.”
In an interview Saturday, Correa attributed his performance to his trust in the coaching staff. It was the kind of anodyne answer expected from a young player — Correa, for all his ups and downs, doesn’t turn 25 until April. But the comment had a rich subtext.
The Ravens took Correa in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft, 10 spots ahead of Deion Jones, the next linebacker selected and now a Pro Bowler for the Atlanta Falcons. As a defensive end-outside linebacker at Boise State, Correa had 20 sacks over three years and such a reputation for "lighting these dudes up" in practice that Broncos coaches had asked him to throttle down his energy or else risk hurting the team’s offensive linemen.
Correa trained as an inside and outside linebacker during his rookie year in Baltimore, ending it on the injured reserve (ribs) after making little impact as a reserve at either spot (four tackles, one forced fumble, one pass defended in nine games). With Zachary Orr’s surprise retirement in January 2017, Correa was the favorite to start at weak-side linebacker next to C.J. Mosley, but early in the season, he lost the top job to Patrick Onwuasor. The Hawaii native finished the year with more than two times as many special teams snaps (378) as defensive snaps (147).
In the offseason, two important moves happened. First, on Jan. 1, defensive coordinator Dean Pees retired. Second, during OTAs, Correa started lining up again at outside linebacker. It’s unclear how much the first move had to do with the second, but Harbaugh acknowledged in May what Correa told him he believed: that his natural position is "probably on the edge." Under first-year coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, the Ravens’ former linebackers coach, he’s getting that chance.
“He's just so quick off the ball,” tight end Hayden Hurst said of Correa. “He's extremely talented with his hands. If you don't get your hands on him first, he's going to make you miss. He's going to pull you. he's going to swat your hands down, he's going to get by you. And I think he proved that the other night.”
Correa was reluctant to talk about what he did well Thursday. On the subject of what he had done poorly, he was more generous. They were “small things,” he said, like setting the edge, key reads and getting “more violent” with his escape. He also was flagged for leading with his helmet, a point of emphasis among NFL officials this season.
“It’s all fixable stuff, but I felt like the effort was there,” he said. “I was super excited to be out there.”
Whether he’ll be on the field with the Ravens for their Sept. 9 regular-season opener against the Buffalo Bills is an open question. Correa entered Thursday’s game as the No. 3 strong-side linebacker on the team’s unofficial depth chart, behind a fellow 2016 draft pick (Matthew Judon) and a 2017 second-round selection (Tyus Bowser). Reserve rush linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Tim Williams fall into a similar age demographic.
Correa said he’s already moved on from Thursday’s win; he gave himself 24 hours to soak in the good feelings, then turned the page to preparations for Thursday’s meeting with the Los Angeles Rams. On Saturday, that meant following one of the longest practices of training camp with a few extra minutes on the JUGS machine.
“Now what is it now [for Correa], obviously?” Harbaugh said. “Take it to the next practice, take it to the next game and keep building on it.”
“It's on to the next game already,” Correa had said minutes earlier, and it was easy to believe they were beginning to see how valuable they could be for each other the rest of this season.