After more than a month of inactivity, football is approaching fast.
The Ravens’ first full-team training camp practice will be held Thursday. Their first preseason game is Aug. 8 against the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars. Final cuts for the 53-man active roster are due by 4 p.m. Aug. 31.
Training camp will help shape the roster before the Sept. 8 regular-season opener against the Dolphins in Miami. As practice nears, The Baltimore Sun will take a position-by-position look at the Ravens’ roster, including breakdowns of all 90 players. Today, the team’s cornerback situation is analyzed.
One big question
Is age just a number for the Ravens’ older stalwarts? Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith are the fourth- and eighth-oldest players on the roster, respectively. Eric Weddle proved again last season that football IQ can compensate for any drop-offs in athleticism, but passing attacks are getting harder and harder to stop. The Ravens’ secondary will take a hit if its age starts to show.
One smaller question
What will it take to force more interceptions? The Ravens finished fifth in the NFL last season in pass defense. They had 87 passes defended, second most in the league, behind only the Bears. But while Chicago grabbed an NFL-best 27 interceptions, the Ravens had just 12. A weakened pass rush probably won’t stimulate a bounce-back season, but the defensive backfield should have the talent to cause trouble.
Brandon Carr: The outside cornerback who has started the most consecutive games of any active defensive player — 176 and counting — is aging gracefully. The 33-year-old Carr allowed a 70.6 passer rating in coverage last season, with an impressive catch rate of 56.6%, according to Touchdown Wire. Most important, he didn’t give up a touchdown. He was elite in the red zone, too, allowing just a 39.6 passer rating and 14.3% catch rate, both second in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Even with the ascendance of Marlon Humphrey, Carr averaged more defensive snaps per game in 2018. With another strong season, his $7 million salary cap hit in 2020 would be easier to stomach.
Marlon Humphrey: The 2017 first-round pick is on the path to stardom. According to ESPN, Humphrey had an interception or pass defended once every 41.6 passing downs last season; only five cornerbacks were more disruptive. The 65.7 passer rating he’s forced since entering the NFL is the third highest among qualified cornerbacks in that period, according to Pro Football Focus. Humphrey’s also proven clutch, with both of his interceptions last year coming in the fourth quarter of close games.
But he might have to do more with less this season. Humphrey said in May that offenses perhaps underestimated him in 2018; he now expects coordinators to game-plan against him more diligently. If that translates to quarterbacks avoiding his side of the field, the Ravens probably won’t mind.
Tavon Young: The Ravens’ top slot cornerback finished with more defensive touchdowns (two) than 19 NFL teams and had more sacks (two) than Tyus Bowser, C.J. Mosley, Brent Urban and Michael Pierce combined for last year. But Young was signed to a three-year, $25.8 million contract extension in February because team officials believe he can be a shutdown corner inside.
A clean bill of health should help. Young sat out 2017 with a torn ACL and played through a sports hernia for nearly half of last season, his first as a full-time slot cornerback. With nickel personnel becoming the new normal for NFL defenses, the Oxon Hill native will have a lot on his plate this year.
Anthony Averett: The 2018 fourth-round pick didn’t practice for nearly a month early in his rookie season because of a hamstring injury, then ended the season limited to special teams duty. But in a small sample size of defensive snaps, Averett impressed. In 47 coverage snaps, most of them coming against the high-flying Kansas City Chiefs, he allowed just a 45.8 passer rating and had the second-highest coverage rating among rookie corners, according to Pro Football Focus. Only the Cleveland Browns’ Denzel Ward, a Pro Bowl selection, fared better.
Justin Bethel: A three-time Pro Bowl selection on special teams who didn’t see a defensive snap for the Atlanta Falcons last season, Bethel will be expected to help anchor new coordinator Chris Horton’s coverage units this season (and likely next). But the free-agent signing could emerge as a litmus test for general manager Eric DeCosta’s appraisal of the team this season. If cut before Week 10, the Ravens could pick up an additional fifth-round compensatory draft pick next year, according to Over the Cap.
Jimmy Smith: The Ravens’ longest-tenured defender is coming off a season that’s notable for his availability: After serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy, Smith played all 12 games thereafter, starting 10. There were no trips to the inactive list for the former first-round pick who’s played a full season just twice in his eight-year NFL career.
Smith said last month that even with his sizable salary cap hit this season, he figured the Ravens would want him back for the final year of his contract. With a nearly $16 million salary, Smith will be the Ravens’ highest-paid player and the NFL’s second-highest-paid cornerback, behind only the Detroit Lions’ Darius Slay.
After not allowing a touchdown over 12 games in 2017, Smith’s play fell off some in 2018. He had no interceptions and six passes defended through Week 16. Then he came up with a pair of picks against the Cleveland Browns in the Ravens’ must-win finale. A smarter diet has helped his level of play, but with his 31st birthday fast approaching, a decline is inevitable at some point.
Iman Marshall: In pads and a helmet, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound rookie will look the part of a Ravens outside cornerback this summer. The fourth-round pick might, in a pinch, see some time at safety this training camp, but coaches and team executives will be more interested in how Marshall’s technique holds up at the next level. Worries about his athleticism and penchant for penalties hurt his draft stock, but his play stood out over his Southern California career.
On the bubble
Maurice Canady: The former sixth-round pick hasn’t had a healthy season yet: a hamstring injury in 2016, knee surgery in 2017 and a troublesome thigh last year. This being the last year of his rookie contract, it’s important that Canady find the position from which he can best help the team. Coach John Harbaugh said early in training camp last year that Canady was a “starter,” noting he could play in the slot, as an outside cornerback, even at safety. His value on special teams might not be enough this preseason; he saw just 10 defensive snaps in 2018, after 320 the year before.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste: After bouncing around from team to team in recent years, the 2014 second-round pick appeared to have found a home in Baltimore last summer. Then Jean-Baptiste broke his arm in the Ravens’ final preseason game. Sidelined for the season, he agreed to a one-year deal this offseason but will need another strong training camp to stick around.
Cyrus Jones: The former Gilman star returned to the Ravens’ roster in early October and finished fourth in the NFL in yards per punt return (13.2), including his first touchdown. But the occasional ball security problem needs to be dealt with, and Jones missed organized team activities and minicamp with what Harbaugh called a health “episode.” (He has since returned to training, according to social media posts.) Jones’ value remains primarily as a returner, not at corner: He played just 15 snaps on defense last season.
Terrell Bonds: The former Alliance of American Football cornerback picked off a pair of passes from Lamar Jackson in one seven-on-seven red-zone drill during mandatory minicamp. Safety Tony Jefferson called it “a great start” for the 5-foot-9 Tennessee State product, but “TB,” as he’s known, will have to keep making plays to keep his NFL dream alive.