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Injuries forcing Ravens to quickly develop young talent at nickel cornerback

For much of his career with the Ravens, Lardarius Webb played cornerback before moving to free safety last fall. This summer, he has lined up as the defense's top nickel cornerback, covering the slot when the offense has used a three-receiver set. It's a familiar role for the nine-year veteran.

"It's nothing new," he said after a recent practice. "I've always been playing it. I've been playing nickel my whole career here. I played some last year, I played it during practice. It's nothing new. They say, 'Go to nickel.' I say, 'OK.' "

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Webb's rise to the top of the depth chart at that position has been necessitated by the loss of the team's top two options. Tavon Young, a fourth-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft who made 11 starts last fall, was expected to start there with cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr on the outside, but he tore the ACL in his left knee during an organized team activity June 1.

Maurice Canady, a sixth-round pick in the same draft, replaced Young in the slot. But he has not practiced since July 29, and coach John Harbaugh later revealed that Canady suffered torn cartilage in his knee that will sideline him indefinitely.

The injuries to the pair of 23-year-olds have opened the door for Webb to line up there. But the 31-year-old Webb said the Ravens must continue developing younger players who can play in the slot.

"We want to find the next guys, like Jaylen [Hill], like [Brandon] Boykin," Webb said. "We want to make sure we've got the next man ready to go. With the way things are happening, it's the next man up. That's how it works around here. So we've got to find that next guy in the slot. I can play it, I can play all of the positions. But we need to find another young guy that we can rely on to be in there, and he's going to have to grow up fast. We're looking for him, and I'm looking for him. I want to help him out as much as possible and get him up to date and show him how to do things. We've got a few guys out here that we feel good about at that position, and we're just going to keep looking at them and growing them."

While cornerbacks who play on the outside are some of the highest-paid players in the league, nickel backs are gaining respect as the Denver Broncos' Chris Harris and Arizona Cardinals' Tyrann Mathieu are Pro Bowl players. And the value of slot cornerbacks got a significant boost when New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick estimated during last year's AFC playoffs that his defense is in a nickel or dime package 80 percent of the time.

Harbaugh, a former secondary coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, listed toughness in traffic, intelligence to decipher routes, and fearlessness to tackle a ball carrier as characteristics he looks for in a potential nickel back. But how many players have all three of those qualities?

"It is never easy to find an NFL player at any position," Harbaugh said. "That is really the truth of it. That is a unique position, too. Every position has its unique traits that way, so it is tough to find these guys. Then there are a lot of guys that can do it, but then you are talking about doing it at a level that is better than the guys you are going against because it is competitive out there."

Boykin is Webb's backup as the slot cornerback, an assignment he began to learn when former Dallas Cowboys assistant Todd Grantham became Georgia's defensive coordinator for Boykin's final two years there.

"He came to Georgia, and he told me, 'In the NFL, you'll probably be a nickel back. So you should learn it,' " recalled Boykin, who was signed by the Ravens on June 5 after Young's season-ending injury. "I didn't know what a nickel back was, and that was the best thing that could have happened to me, me learning that in my junior year."

Both Webb and Boykin singled out Hill, an undrafted rookie from Jacksonville State, as a potential candidate. Hill, who never played the position in high school or college, said he has relied on Webb and Boykin for a quick education.

"Nickel back is actually more difficult than I thought it would be because I'm used to just being outside and being manned up and just worrying about that one receiver," he said. "But at nickel back, you've got to see multiple receivers coming in and know when to carry a guy and know when to push a guy. But it helps you learn about the overall defense."

Losing Young and Canady is a significant blow to the defense, and how the unit adjusts might determine the team's success this season. But defensive coordinator Dean Pees said he is confident in the team's depth at nickel back.

"We are just going to keep working a bunch of guys in there," he said. "It is always funny when you start out. It is like anything. [You say], 'Oh boy, we get some depth right there.' It can change in a hurry at any one position. The thing of it is, is that we will just keep rolling a bunch of guys in there until we find the right combination. It could be Webby, it could be Jaylen Hill, or it could be Boykin. … We will probably take a look over the next four weeks at a lot of guys and figure out who we want that guy to be starting the season."

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