Ravens fans who breathed a collective sigh of relief after watching Marlon Humphrey in the team's preseason finale at the New Orleans Saints were not the only ones who were encouraged by the rookie cornerback's play.
Count Humphrey himself as one of those emboldened by his outing in a 14-13 win at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Thursday night.
"Definitely," Humphrey replied when asked whether he needed the game to gain some confidence. "I'm a guy that definitely wants to get some games [in], especially if you can play a game before the season starts. It's a big difference between the college and the NFL. I'm going to feel a lot better now that I got some game time."
That reassurance could prove timely as Humphrey gets ready to make his NFL regular-season debut in the team's opener at the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. The 16th overall pick in April's draft, Humphrey will enter the year with some lofty projections attached to his name.
"Expectations are high," coach John Harbaugh acknowledged over the weekend. "He's our first-round pick, he's a high pick and he's a really good player. He's confident. He's been well-coached at Alabama obviously. He's been in any kind of big situation that you could ever put a college player in. He has been in it — on the island, so to speak. I have a lot of confidence that he's going to play at a very high level."
At times during training camp, the 6-foot, 197-pound Humphrey has flashed the ability that made him one of the most coveted cornerback prospects in the draft, using his quickness and instincts to climb the depth chart to the No. 3 outside cornerback spot behind starters Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr. But he has also revived concerns about his injury history.
Humphrey sat out five consecutive practices and the preseason opener against the Washington Redskins on Aug. 10 because of an ailing hamstring. He played in the next game at the Miami Dolphins seven days later but aggravated the injury, which forced him to miss five more practices in a row and the third game, against Buffalo Bills on Aug. 26, before returning to the team two days later.
Phil Savage, former Ravens director of player personnel and current Crimson Tide Sports Network radio analyst, noted that a hamstring ailment troubled Humphrey toward the end of the 2016 season. Savage said another worry is Humphrey's ability to play the ball on deep throws.
"I've had other offensive coaches basically say, 'Hey, we're going to challenge him down the field,' " Savage said. "If there was one [blemish] in his game, at least in 2016, he struggled to play the ball in the air, the contested downfield throw, the vertical, up-the-sideline, 50-50 ball, whatever you want to call it. All these teams watch the same video and the same games. Those are the two things that are sort of the concerns going into the year. But in terms of long term and his potential with height, weight, speed, ball skills, football instincts, the ability to tackle, he can check off most every box in that regard."
That is why Thursday's performance was especially important for Humphrey. Along with safeties Chuck Clark and Otha Foster, Humphrey played all 81 snaps on defense against the Saints. Although he was flagged for illegal use of hands in the third quarter and for pass interference (it was declined) in the second, Humphrey finished with four solo tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble, which was recovered by inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor, late in the first quarter.
"I felt OK," Humphrey said. "I've got to clean some things up. As far as the things I could've worked on, playing the deep ball in the deep part of the field, I think I did that well. I didn't do as good as I wanted to at the beginning, kind of with my hands on [receivers] and things like that. But finishing plays, I think I did well on that. I think I walked out pretty pleased for the first one."
Harbaugh was pleased that Humphrey played the entire game without suffering a setback.
"I think it helps a guy like Marlon Humphrey tremendously to play a lot on Thursday," the coach said. "He didn't get a lot of reps in the preseason games. He's a rookie. So for him to get all of those reps I thought was very positive for him."
Against New Orleans, Humphrey lined up against wide receivers Travin Dural (who has since been cut) and Corey Fuller (who has been placed on injured reserve). Against Cincinnati, he could be matched up against A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell.
Ravens wide receiver Breshad Perriman, the team's first-round choice in 2015, said he would expect Humphrey to have a few butterflies before Sunday's opener. But he said he also expected those nerves to dissipate quickly for Humphrey.
"It all goes away after the first snap," Perriman said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.