The Ravens took Southern Methodist cornerback Brandon Stephens late in the third round of the NFL draft Friday night, adding a late-developing and versatile prospect at a position of strength.
Stephens, drafted No. 104 overall, transferred from UCLA in 2019 and joined SMU’s team as a walk-on. During preseason camp, he switched from running back to cornerback, earned a scholarship and went on to start the Mustangs’ next 23 games. At 6 foot, 213 pounds, he has the size the Ravens covet in their cornerbacks, and he led SMU in passes defensed (11) last season.
Stephens lined up primarily as an outside cornerback last season, saw some time in the slot but could ultimately move to safety, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said early Saturday morning.
At Stephens’ pro day, he ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash and showed good explosiveness in the broad jump and vertical jump.
“I think I defer to the coaches on that one,” DeCosta said. “Right now, we probably would say that we like his potential as a safety. He’s primarily been a corner with some safety play this past year, but he really fits the profile of a free safety-type of player. The thing I like about him when I watch him is, with his background as a running back, he really does like contact. He comes up, he’s physical. He’ll force the issue and he can close the gap very quickly.”
At Stephens’ pro day, he ran an unofficial 4.44-second 40-yard dash and showed good explosiveness in the broad jump and vertical jump. His times in the 20-yard shuttle and three-cone drill, which measure acceleration and quickness, were below average for a cornerback.
Stephens, who had one interception and 23 passes defensed in his college career, said he woke up Friday morning expecting to be taken in the third round. (Most experts projected him as a Day 3 pick.) When he saw his mother at the kitchen table, Stephens told her, “Baltimore might be one of the teams I go to.” All throughout the draft, he said he was texting with former teammate James Proche II, now a Ravens wide receiver.
“We got a GREAT ball player,” Proche tweeted after the Ravens took Stephens with the second-to-last pick of the third round, “even better dude.”
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Stephens’ unusual path to the NFL started in high school, “where my love for the position really started,” he said. But when he decided to switch to defensive back, he’d never learned a defensive playbook. He’d never even played in zone coverage. Over the 2020 season, the Ravens saw regular improvement in his play. According to Sports Info Solutions, he was targeted 47 times in coverage, giving up 23 completions for 314 yards and three touchdowns for a combined passer rating of 83.1.
“Really just see a lot of raw talent, and you really saw him get better throughout the season if you watch his games in chronological order,” Ravens director of player personnel Joe Hortiz said. “So he’s a guy who gained steam through the process, put together a good pro day. [Pro scout] Corey Frazier, I believe, was down there and saw that. So he just kept stacking good exposures on top of each other and made his way to us.”
Said Stephens: “There was a lot of doubters when I made the move. Some people didn’t understand why I was making the move, but I did. This just goes to prove what I saw and what my vision was going forward.”
The Ravens have good depth at cornerback, led by former All-Pro selections Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith. Tavon Young, while injury prone, projects as the team’s starting slot cornerback. Jimmy Smith is also back on a one-year deal, and former fourth-round pick Anthony Averett is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
Ben Cleveland is a 6-foot-6, 343-pound, nicknamed “Big Country,” started seven games at right guard for the Georgia Bulldogs in 2019 and all nine in 2020.
Stephens was the Ravens’ second pick Friday, joining No. 94 overall selection Ben Cleveland, a Georgia guard. The pick was a compensatory selection for the Houston Texans’ hiring of assistant David Culley as head coach, part of the league’s new plan to reward teams for developing minority candidates.