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Ravens draft preview: Trevon Moehrig headlines the safety class, but where does he fit?

If Ravens officials had any dissatisfaction with their safety play last season, it couldn’t be over what they’d invested at the position.

Chuck Clark made $2 million in the final year of his rookie contract, plus another $1.4 million in prorated signing bonus money he’d earned with a three-year contract extension. DeShon Elliott, another late-round find, had a salary cap hit under $1 million. Special teams mainstays Anthony Levine Sr. and Jordan Richards combined for less than $2 million on the books.

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The team’s only wasteful spending was on a player no longer welcome on the premises. Earl Thomas III, released in August after a productive but contentious year in Baltimore, sat at home all season and earned $5 million of his $20 million signing bonus.

With the NFL draft fast approaching, a season of relative stability at safety has not silenced suggestions that the Ravens can do better. The team’s Clark-Elliott pairing, with just one interception total, was a clear No. 3 in the AFC North, according to Pro Football Focus, behind the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers. But Clark and Elliott ranked among the NFL’s top 30 safeties overall, played almost every defensive snap and had few breakdowns in a demanding system.

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So if the Ravens draft a safety with one of their top picks, it might not be to replace Clark or Elliott — not yet, anyway — but rather to complement their skill set.

What do the Ravens need at safety?

Coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s preference for pressure is evident in his defense’s most common coverage: Cover 1, a man-to-man scheme typically supported by a center-field safety. With only one deep-lying safety, Cover 1 defenses give Martindale an extra defender to perplex or, more likely, pressure the quarterback.

That means Ravens scouts have one more trait to evaluate. Clark and Elliott finished sixth and seventh, respectively, among safeties in pass-rush snaps last season, according to PFF; no other team had two safeties with at least 60 blitzes recorded in 2020. (Elliott finished with 2 ½ sacks, more than outside linebackers linebackers Tyus Bowser and Jaylon Ferguson.)

It helps to be comfortable in the box. Because of how often the Ravens employed single-high-safety shells last season — nearly 57% of opposing passes came against Cover 1 or Cover 3 defenses, according to Sports Info Solutions — Clark and Elliott often lined up as if they were linebackers or nickelbacks. From there, they were expected to blitz, execute their run fits, drop into zone coverage, or mark tight ends and running backs in man coverage.

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Sometimes the Ravens operated as if they had three safeties on the field, with cornerback Jimmy Smith lining up over tight ends or occupying a deep-middle zone. That could be what the Ravens ask of an early-round pick: Do everything well enough, and you’ll become an interchangeable (and invaluable) part of the defense.

Here’s whom they could target early in the draft.

Texas Christian’s Trevon Moehrig

Why he’d fit: The 6-foot-1, 202-pound Moehrig won the Jim Thorpe Award last season, awarded to college football’s top defensive back, but he was perhaps even more deserving the year before. In 2019, Moehrig allowed 12 just catches on 30 targets, according to SIS, and had 11 passes defensed, four interceptions and a 29.9 passer rating allowed in coverage. In 2020, he had two picks and nine passes defensed, and his rating jumped to 80.2.

In TCU’s system, which relies on two-high-safety looks and Cover 4 coverages, Moehrig lined up more often in the slot (313 snaps) and in the box (198) than he did as a free safety (172) last season, according to PFF. When matched up with a receiver, he could mirror routes effectively, changing direction with the ease of a smaller cornerback. And when Moehrig was targeted, in either zone or man coverage, he drove on the ball well, showing impressive physicality and good ball skills at the catch point.

A Horned Frogs captain and former special teams standout, Moehrig should be able to contribute immediately. He seemed comfortable handling presnap communication in TCU’s secondary, and as plays unfolded, he looked comfortable reading the quarterback’s eyes and interpreting route concepts as a deep-lying safety.

Why he might not: At age 21, Moehrig still has room to grow. But he’d enter a Ravens system with little experience handling some of the position’s essential responsibilities.

Moehrig spent most of his snaps in split-safety coverages, not the single-high defenses the Ravens tend to favor. He’s a good athlete, not a great one — Moehrig tested as an above-average safety in the 40-yard dash and 20-yard shuttle at his Pro Day — so any presnap hiccups or false steps as a center-field defender could compromise his range in coverage. When he misdiagnosed runs in space, he often couldn’t overcome his bad angles to the ball-carrier.

Moehrig would also be challenged in spots closer to the line of scrimmage. A long, lean athlete, he might struggle to shed blocks as a run defender early in his career. At TCU, he missed six tackles in 10 games last season and nine tackles in 12 games in 2019. Moehrig also had just two pass-rush snaps over his last two seasons.

Projection: Round 1

Oregon’s Jevon Holland

Why he’d fit: Before opting out of the 2020 season, Holland excelled in his first two seasons in two largely different roles. As a true freshman in 2018, when Holland had a team-high five interceptions and six pass breakups, he played over half of his snaps as a free safety, according to PFF. In 2019, when he added another four picks and four breakups, he didn’t play a single snap there, instead primarily aligning as a slot corner.

With his good footwork, the 6-1, 207-pound Holland has the physical profile to handle smaller receivers and bigger tight ends. He had over 1,000 yards receiving as a high school senior, and it shows when he’s tracking and competing for 50-50 balls. Despite his narrow frame, Holland’s an aggressive run defender, taking on blocks and targeting ball-carriers without fear. He had 4 ½ tackles for loss in 2019.

Why he might not: As with many prospects who didn’t play in 2020, Holland has only so much recent film to evaluate. Some draft evaluators have him pegged as a nickelback, after he played there extensively in 2019. But Holland might not have the top-end speed to cover slot receivers regularly. Just as worrisome was his tendency to bite on double moves.

As a run defender, Holland lacks the strength to hold up in the box; he missed nine tackles in 2018 and 2019. While he does have room to bulk up, Holland would likely be best served operating in the slot or as a deep safety, where his processing ability could be showcased. Holland’s punt return ability, while an asset, would also be somewhat redundant on a team with two promising young options, Devin Duvernay and James Proche II.

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Projection: Round 2-3

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Central Florida’s Richie Grant

Why he’d fit: In his third season as a starter, Grant cemented himself as one of the nation’s best single-high safeties. Targeted 20 times in Cover 1 or Cover 3 defenses, according to SIS, Grant had three interceptions and eight passes defensed while giving up just seven completions for 100 yards. The passer rating he allowed in those coverages improved every year, from 110.0 as a sophomore to 85.2 as a junior to 29.2 last season.

Instinctive, hard-charging and quick to accelerate as a deep safety, Grant also held up closer to the line of scrimmage, with nearly 600 career snaps in the slot and over 700 in the box. His urgent playing style and football IQ were evident in his production: 10 interceptions, 16 passes defensed and 259 tackles over his final 34 games. As a run defender, Grant graded out well for his size.

Why he might not: Grant will be a 24-year-old rookie, and with his smaller frame (5-11, 197 pounds), he could be on the decline athletically by the time he’s up for his second contract. Grant’s also not the fastest safety, which will be trouble if he struggles to take the right angle to the ball or make the correct read as his team’s last line of defense.

Despite Grant’s experience, he could have some growing pains as a presnap communicator at the next level. The Golden Knights had two other NFL prospects in their secondary, Aaron Robinson and Tay Gowin, but still ranked among the worst pass defenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Projection: Round 2-3

Indiana’s Jamar Johnson

Why he’d fit: In his first year as a full-time starter, Johnson had a breakout season, grabbing four interceptions in eight games while posting an elite 21.7% incompletion rate in coverage, according to PFF. While he primarily lined up as a deep safety in two-high looks, Johnson also moved around to the slot and the box.

In coverage, the 6-2, 205-pound Johnson rarely found himself out of position and was a natural ball tracker. He was also an effective blitzer for the Hoosiers, creating pressure from myriad spots and finishing with four sacks in 33 pass-rush snaps over his final two seasons, according to PFF.

Why he might not: Johnson plays faster than he tests, but that’s not saying much. At his Pro Day, he ranked in the 31st percentile among safeties in the 40-yard dash (4.58 seconds), the 11th percentile for the 20-yard shuttle and the 10th percentile for the three-cone drill. He didn’t drive on the ball especially well when coming out of his backpedal for Indiana, and he could struggle in Cover 1 schemes at the next level.

Johnson’s ability and willingness to tackle have also been heavily scrutinized. He missed 13 tackles last season, according to PFF, and his 26.5% rate of misses is among the worst for safeties in this draft class. Off the field, Johnson was arrested as a freshman for resisting law enforcement after he fled the scene where cops smelled marijuana.

Projection: Round 2-4

Honorable mention

Syracuse’s Andre Cisco (Round 2-4): He’s earned his reputation as a ball hawk with 13 interceptions in 24 games, but his fearlessness can get him into trouble, too, and a season-ending ACL injury will make teams think twice.

Florida State’s Hamsah Nasirildeen (Round 3-4): Seminoles coaches made use of his powerful 6-3, 215-pound frame, even lining him up at linebacker, but he’s not always reliable as a tackler or instinctive in coverage.

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