At a news conference Friday, Ravens cornerback Tavon Young thought back to the 2016 NFL scouting combine. He was the smallest defensive back in Indianapolis then, all of 5 feet 9 and 183 pounds. Only two players of the 300-plus on hand were shorter. It did not seem possible that, almost exactly three years later, he would be signing the biggest-ever deal for a slot corner.
But as the league changed around him, it mattered only that Young embraced what came next. He didn’t have to grow to be the Ravens’ ideal nickelback, just grow into the role and all it required: versatility, toughness, playmaking.
“This is a big contract,” coach John Harbaugh, sitting next to Young, said of a three-year contract extension reportedly worth $25.8 million, including $13 million guaranteed. “This is a big number. This is a record-setting number, and it's not something that you enter into lightly at all. ... You enter into it with a lot of thought, and we've done a great job. But the math works, and the math works because of who the player is, and you know this player.”
The first deal of general manager Eric DeCosta’s tenure reflected the NFL’s increasingly wide-open offensive tendencies and the franchise’s belief in Young’s ability to stymie much of it. Harbaugh noted Friday that the Ravens’ base defense, featuring two cornerbacks and two safeties, was used on just 16 percent of snaps in 2018, a “stunning” decline. According to Sharp Football Stats, offenses lined up with three or more receivers over 56 percent of the time last season.
The Ravens did not lack for talent on defense last season, with run stuffers up front, dynamic pass rushers on the edges, stability at linebacker, and experienced outside cornerbacks and safeties. But Young gave the league’s top-ranked defense a Swiss Army knife just outside the hash marks, quick enough to handle the league’s jitterbug slot receivers and unafraid to take on tight ends as a run defender or offensive tackles as a blitzer.
"If you've got a versatile player that can play in there and cover receivers, and is also willing to switch and willing to go in there and make tackles against the run like this guy is,” Harbaugh said, “that's a big plus for you.”
Added DeCosta: “I’ve been here 23 years, and the fastest way to lose a game is to play poorly in the secondary.”
Young, who was entering the final year of his rookie contract, was not the Ravens’ top-performing defensive back last season. Despite his highlights — he returned a fumble for a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons and the Los Angeles Chargers, the latter of which clinched a vital Week 16 road win — Young finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ No. 75 cornerback.
A groin injury bothered Young for most of the season, and he underwent surgery last month on a sports hernia that caused him to miss the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Chargers. His comeback from a torn ACL that brought him to tears in June 2017 also featured a new wrinkle: more nickelback responsibilities. As a fourth-round pick in 2016, he’d spent most of his standout rookie season at his old outside-cornerback position.
But with cornerback Jimmy Smith healthy again and the return of recent additions Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey, Young played just nine coverage snaps outside and 355 in the slot last season, according to PFF. The Ravens finished first in opponent completion percentage, second in opponent yards per pass attempt and tied for third in touchdowns allowed.
“I’m blessed to be here, blessed to be in this situation, and I’m just ready to keep working,” Young said.
Later in the news conference, DeCosta was asked whether he expected any other extensions to be announced before free agency begins March 13. Harbaugh rapped his knuckles on the table, lest the question jinx anything.
The Ravens still are hoping to re-sign inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, the star of their unrestricted-free-agent class. Outside linebacker Matthew Judon, kicker Justin Tucker and left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who has a fifth-year option available, are entering walk years. The longer they go unsigned, the harder it could be for the Ravens to fulfill their pledge to retain more homegrown talent.
After meeting in Jupiter, Fla., following the season, DeCosta and the Ravens’ front office were determined not to let Young, an Oxon Hill native, leave Maryland. Negotiations started a few weeks ago, DeCosta said, and they culminated with Young calling his mother to share the good news. She didn’t believe him at first. He said Friday that he planned to take his parents out to dinner, his treat.
“The thing that you feel great about is, everything doesn’t always work out that way,” Harbaugh said of developing players like Young. “But everything that you hoped he would be, he has become and more.”