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Ravens training camp preview: With top talent at cornerback and safety, secondary has rare potential

If there’s going to be an NFL season this year, it’ll have to start in training camp.

After an offseason upended by the coronavirus pandemic, the Ravens are scheduled to report to Owings Mills on Tuesday. Beyond that, little is known about the lead-up to their Sept. 13 season opener.

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The NFL and the Ravens still have to figure it all out. But as practice nears, The Baltimore Sun will take a position-by-position look at the Ravens’ roster. Today, the team’s defensive back situation is analyzed.

Who’s back

CB Marlon Humphrey: His breakthrough All-Pro season (career-high three interceptions, two defensive touchdowns) came in his first year as a slot cornerback. With the 2017 first-round pick expected to move back outside, expectations should be even higher.

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CB Marcus Peters: The midseason acquisition, and eventual All-Pro selection, led all Ravens corners in passer rating allowed last year (63.4, according to Pro-Football-Reference). The team hasn’t had any problems with Peters’ personality, and his talent is undeniable.

S Earl Thomas III: The Pro Bowl selection didn’t even start the season at full strength, and still opponents rarely targeted him in coverage — just 25 times in 15 games, according to PFR. Thomas will need another strong year, though, to make critics forget about Derrick Henry’s playoff stiff arm.

S Chuck Clark: The breakout star of the Ravens defense won’t catch any teams by surprise in 2020. But will his role as a box safety change with the addition of inside linebackers like Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison?

CB Tavon Young: The slot corner suffered a season-ending neck injury in August, just six months after signing a lucrative contract extension and two years after a season-ending ACL tear. Young is expected to be ready for training camp, and his presence should lift the secondary.

CB/S Jimmy Smith: The longtime outside cornerback could see some time at safety this season in a new hybrid role. Whether he’s covering tight ends or matching up against a team’s No. 4 wide receiver, Smith has the size and skill set to help the Ravens.

CB Anthony Averett: After playing in 11 games as a rookie, the 2018 fourth-round pick appeared in nine last season, and just one after mid-November. Averett has the speed to find a role, but it’s a crowded depth chart.

S DeShon Elliott: The 2018 sixth-round pick was on his way to a bigger role last season before going down with a knee injury in October, his second season-ending injury in as many years. When healthy, Elliott’s an important special teams contributor and solid backup safety.

S Anthony Levine Sr.: “Co-Cap” is set for his ninth season in Baltimore after signing a one-year extension this offseason. Levine’s a versatile defender who led the Ravens in special teams snaps last season.

CB Iman Marshall: The 2019 fourth-round pick spent over half of the season on injured reserve after hurting his toe in training camp. Marshall appeared in three games overall, getting most of his snaps on special teams.

S Jordan Richards: The special teams contributor arrived in late October, after the Ravens released cornerback Justin Bethel to preserve a draft pick. Richards played in every game thereafter, scoring a touchdown in the regular-season finale after recovering a fumble in the end zone.

CB Terrell Bonds: A product of Tennessee State and the now-defunct Alliance of American Football, Bonds spent last season on the Ravens practice squad.

Who’s new

S Geno Stone: The seventh-round pick was a second-team All-Big Ten Conference pick last year at Iowa. Despite his relatively limited athleticism, Stone ranked first among Football Bowl Subdivision safeties in yards allowed per coverage snap (0.25) over the past two seasons, according to Pro Football Focus.

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S Nigel Warrior: The undrafted rookie was named first-team All-Southeastern Conference after tying for the league lead in interceptions (four) last season at Tennessee. Warrior is the son of former Ravens and All-Pro cornerback Dale Carter.

CB Josh Nurse: The undrafted rookie started 10 games for Utah last season, tying for third on the team with six passes defended.

CB Khalil Dorsey: The undrafted rookie started 40 games and twice earned first-team All-Big Sky Conference honors at Northern Arizona.

CB Jeff Hector: The undrafted rookie from Division III Redlands had eight interceptions last season, three of which he returned for a touchdown.

What to watch

Despite a disastrous September, the Ravens, by one metric, actually had a better pass defense last season than their league-leading defense did in 2018. They finished tied for third in the NFL in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, the rock of a unit that was hampered at times by inconsistent run stopping.

And now, in 2020, the secondary should be even stronger.

Peters will be on the roster for Week 1, not Week 7. Humphrey can return to outside cornerback, his more natural position. Young’s return turns Smith into maybe the NFL’s top dime cornerback. Thomas had a rehab-free offseason. Clark now has 12 games as a starter to study. With ample depth at cornerback and safety, along with more pass-rush juice up front, pass defense coordinator Chris Hewitt has to be one of the happiest men in the NFL.

Expectations are high. No NFL defense has allowed fewer than 2,400 passing yards since 1980 — a rate of 150 yards per game. Over the Ravens’ final nine games last season, including their playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, they gave up just 141.3 passing yards per game.

With a schedule that features Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, Carson Wentz and Ben Roethlisberger — and that’s just in the first seven weeks — the Ravens probably aren’t in for a historic season. An elite secondary can still carry them far.

X-factor

The success of the Ravens pass defense last season was all the more remarkable because of how often they found themselves in theoretically unfavorable positions. Under coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, they blitzed — a lot. Even the defensive backs.

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According to PFF, Thomas blitzed more times his first year with the Ravens (57) than he had in his previous seven years combined (36) with the Seattle Seahawks. Clark led all safeties and cornerbacks leaguewide with 106 pass-rush snaps. Humphrey, too, was asked to get after the quarterback, finishing with 41 blitzes.

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The question for Martindale is what an improved pass rush would mean for the defensive backfield. Defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe should bolster the team’s pressure up front, and Queen is a talented blitzer. If the Ravens can get after the quarterback with fewer blitzes — they sent five men or more on over half of their plays last season — will their corners and safeties get more snaps in coverage?

“Our goal as a defense is to try to put as much stress on protection rules that teams have, and the end-all goal is to have a free runner to the quarterback,” Martindale said last season. “But what you’re seeing is anybody that comes off the bus can blitz for us, and they know that.”

Roster projection

In the modern NFL, secondaries can’t afford to go into a season short-handed. The Ravens should have at least 10 or 11 defensive backs on their initial 53-man roster, and few surprises are expected. The team has well-established starters at both cornerback and safety and cheap, young backups behind them. If a battle for a roster spot emerges, special teams ability will likely be decisive.

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