When you’ve played just five games in four seasons and you’re clawing for a spot on your sixth NFL team, uncertainty is an old friend.
“It ain’t nothing new now,” said Ravens cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste as he thought ahead to Saturday, when the team’s roster will shrink from 90 players to a final group of 53.
For the dozens of players who already know they’re going to make the 2018 Ravens, the last few days of the preseason are about staying on form and not getting hurt.
But for the small band of men fighting for the last few roster spots, these are vital, nerve-racking times. Jean-Baptiste is a classic fringe player, trying to breathe life into his career after his initial promise as a second-round draft pick flamed out.
Asked what he can be, the 28-year old did not hesitate.
“I think I can be one of the best in the league,” he said. “When I get my opportunity, I’m going to show it.”
When the NFL announced last week that Jimmy Smith would serve a four-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, the decision not only raised questions about how the Ravens would endure the absence of their best cornerback, it threw a jolt of uncertainty into the team’s developing roster picture.
Budding star Marlon Humphrey and durable veteran Brandon Carr will start at cornerback, with former fourth-round pick Tavon Young covering the slot. Fourth-round pick Anthony Averett is expected to make the roster as is Maurice Canady. But that likely still leaves an open cornerback slot, and Jean-Baptiste enhanced his claim Saturday night in Miami.
He intercepted the only pass thrown in his direction on the way to earning the highest grade of any Raven from the scouting publication Pro Football Focus. He also intercepted a pass in the previous preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts.
“I think Stan has played very well, I would say the last three or four weeks,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s been really good in practice. He’s played well in the games. He’s improved tremendously from the offseason, especially, so he’s done a great job and I’m really pleased with him. He’s definitely in the hunt.”
The difficulty, Harbaugh added, is that many of the team’s young players asserted themselves in Saturday’s victory over the Miami Dolphins.
“They responded in a way to give themselves a chance to make the team,” he said. “It’s what’s going to make these decisions difficult. We’ve got a bunch of guys stepping up and earning spots on the team.”
When an established player falters, a forgotten man gets his chance to rise. That’s the law of the NFL.
No one needed such a chance more than Jean-Baptiste.
Scouts loved his 6-foot-3, 216-pound frame, his 41 1/2-inch vertical leap and the sure hands he flashed as a converted wide receiver.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock predicted that Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan would turn Jean-Baptiste into a Pro Bowl cornerback.
But Jean-Baptiste played just four games and made no tackles before the Saints gave up on him at the end of his second training camp.
“Look, there were times where you see progress and other times where you just felt like you weren’t seeing the same consistency on a regular basis you needed,” Saints coach Sean Payton told ESPN.com.
From there, Jean-Baptiste quickly became an NFL drifter, spending time on the practice squads of the Detroit Lions, Seattle Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars in addition to a brief summer stint with the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I would just tell myself, ‘Control what I can control, on and off the field. And everything will fall in place when it needs to,’ ” he said.
He wasn’t on a team at all when the Ravens signed him to their practice squad last October. He got into one game in December.
But he’s treated this training camp as a new proving ground, and he appreciates the long look he’s receiving.
“Other training camps were going well, just like it is now,” he said, reflecting on his jagged road. “But there are just more opportunities with the Ravens. I’m getting more playing time. We’ve got a lot of vets on this side of the ball, so a lot of rest time for them means I get on the field more.”
His more-established teammates have noticed what he’s done with that time.
“I like ‘Bap.’ He’s one of the guys that’s kind of grown on me a little bit,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “It kind of him took a second last year. … But he has all the intangibles you look for in a corner. He’s long, strong, can run, and he’s really come along. He’s showing that he wants to be a guy who makes this team.”
Jean-Baptiste dreams of exacting vengeance on the teams that gave up on him, two of which are on the Ravens’ schedule this season.
“The chip is always there,” he said. “If I do play against a team that cut me, yeah, it’s going to be a little personal.”
But that’s getting ahead of the matter. Jean-Baptiste is an NFL survivor and he knows that beyond trying to make the Ravens, he needs to play well at every opportunity, just in case someone is looking.
“You can’t go out there and put out bad film,” he said. “Because that’s the last thing they’re going to think about you.”