Ravens positional review: Secondary

The secondary has never held a more central place for the Ravens, not even when Ed Reed and Chris McAlister racked up Pro Bowl appearances last decade. A deep corps of cornerbacks and safeties pushed the Ravens defense to the top of the NFL in 2018, and general manager Eric DeCosta doubled down on that investment when he essentially filled the salary slot intended for middle linebacker C.J. Mosley by signing six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas.

2018 in review

The Ravens held opposing quarterbacks to 6.3 yards per attempt, tied for the best in the league. Their ever-shifting coverages helped them win games on defense, even though they created far fewer turnovers (tied for 18th in the league with 12 interceptions) than they had the previous season.

Cornerback Marlon Humphrey emerged as a star in his second season, earning team Most Valuable Player honors as voted on by the local media and grading as the ninth-best cover corner in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. But what made the Ravens so unusual was their ability to trot out three capable outside cornerbacks every week. Veteran Brandon Carr has given the Ravens terrific value since they signed him in 2017 with his unmatched durability, reliable one-on-one coverage and deft hand in advising younger teammates. Carr isn’t the flashiest talent, but the Ravens spent years looking for a player like him to bring stability to their secondary. Jimmy Smith has been the opposite — a worthy No. 1 cornerback at his best who’s served four-game suspensions each of the past two seasons because of off-field mistakes. Smith was way off his game when he returned to the lineup in Week 5 but rounded into form as the Ravens made their late playoff push.

After he missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL, slot cornerback Tavon Young bounced back to play 602 defensive snaps in 2018, almost as many as Smith. He returned two fumbles for touchdowns, made five tackles for loss and defended five passes, stamping himself as one of the most versatile performers on the defense. He and Anthony Levine Sr., better known as a special-teams star, proved essential when the Ravens went to nickel-and-dime coverage to counter high-powered passing offenses.

Rookie cornerback Anthony Averett played just 73 defensive snaps but impressed coaches enough that they kept him on the active roster despite a hamstring injury that cost him five games. Maurice Canady once seemed like a candidate to be the Ravens’ chief slot cornerback but was hampered by a thigh injury and played a mere 13 defensive snaps in 2018. Fellow cornerbacks Jaylen Hill and Stanley Jean-Baptiste missed the entire season because of injuries, though Hill did return to practice in November as he recovered from a torn ACL.

Safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson played almost every defensive snap when healthy (Jefferson missed two games with an ankle injury). Weddle often wore the defensive headset, calling signals from the back end, and his constant stunting helped keep opposing quarterbacks off-balance. He was not the playmaker he’d been in past seasons (no interceptions and just three passes defended), but according to Pro Football Focus, he deserved the Pro Bowl selection he received at the end of the season. Jefferson, meanwhile, took a step forward from his first season in Baltimore, giving the Ravens above-average performance in coverage and against the run. It’s debatable whether he’s lived up to the four-year, $34 million deal the team gave him in 2017, but he’s a fine NFL starter. Chuck Clark impressed Ravens coaches during the preseason and did a competent job as the team’s third safety in 2018.

2019 outlook

Secondary is the position where the Ravens are most set after they signed Thomas to a four-year, $55 million deal. They made the move a week after cutting the 34-year-old Weddle to save $7.5 million on their 2019 salary cap. The decision to move on from Weddle was difficult; he was one of the key on-field minds behind the 2018 defense and also an influential mentor in the locker room. Those qualities mitigated the step he’d lost as a tackler and ballhawk. But if the 29-year-old Thomas can stay healthy — a significant question given the 19 games he’s missed over the past three seasons — he should give the Ravens a significant boost. He intercepted three passes in four games and was on pace for the best Pro Football Focus grade of his career when he broke his leg last season. Few NFL defenders have accomplished more this decade than Thomas did as one of the signature players on Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense. The Ravens hope he’ll deliver a second chapter in his potential Hall of Fame career, much as Rod Woodson did when he played in Baltimore from 1998 to 2001.

Thomas should pair well with strong safety Jefferson, who’s solid in coverage and better than solid when it’s time to deliver hits near the line of scrimmage. Jefferson is a steady, upbeat presence in the locker room, and he’ll become more important to the team’s defensive personality with Weddle, Mosley and Terrell Suggs all moving on. Clark will be around to provide depth at safety, and 2018 sixth-round pick DeShon Elliott (who spent the season on injured reserve after fracturing his forearm) could also earn a role if he performs well in training camp.

Cornerback depth remains the strength of the defense, with Smith, Carr and Humphrey still in the fold and Young locked into the slot after he signed a three-year, $25.8 million extension. Humphrey’s blend of speed, combativeness and confidence should make him a standout for years. Carr is the definition of a reliable, mature veteran.

Smith’s position is less certain, because the Ravens could create $9.5 million cap space by releasing or trading him, money they could surely use to fortify other, thinner positions. At the same time, Smith is still a terrific talent who should improve on his 2018 performance if he’s able to avoid the injuries and off-field troubles that have marred his career. The Ravens have given every indication they plan to move forward with their longest-tenured cornerback as he heads into the last year of his contract, and they would create more than $6 million in dead money if they release or trade Smith.

If the Ravens change course and move on from Smith, Averett could step into a significantly greater role. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale will likely continue leaning on Levine in important passing situations. Canady is still on the roster, while Jean-Baptiste is a restricted free agent. The Ravens cut Hill on Tuesday after he failed a physical. As if they didn’t have enough options, the Ravens signed free-agent defensive back Justin Bethel. Bethel was primarily a special-teams standout for the Atlanta Falcons in 2018, but he started 14 games on defense for the Arizona Cardinals from 2015 to 2017.

The overall message is clear; the Ravens have spent lavishly on their secondary, and it’s loaded with quality talent.

Free-agent options

Given the moves they’ve made to sign Thomas and Bethel and their needs at other positions, it’s hard to imagine the Ravens digging into their remaining budget to snare another defensive back.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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