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How Brandon Stephens Went From a Running Back to a Top-Notch Starting Cornerback

DB Brandon Stephens
DB Brandon Stephens

The Ravens finished practice and most players were in the locker room showering and getting changed. A few others spoke with reporters at weekly press conferences in the indoor practice field.

In the background, there was a whirring noise. It was Brandon Stephens, getting in some extra conditioning on a stationary bike.

Thanks to a relentless work ethic and focus on steady improvement, Stephens' Year 3 emergence has been an under-the-radar integral part of Baltimore's defensive dominance this season.

He'll be in the spotlight this Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, who boast one of the game's best deep ball attacks with quarterback Geno Smith and a dangerous wide receiver trio.

The last time the Ravens faced the Seahawks, in 2019, Marcus Peters announced his arrival with a pick-six in his first game as a Raven. After Peters' departure this offseason, there were questions about who would step into the starting spot opposite Marlon Humphrey, even from Humphrey himself.

"I didn't know who the corner would be or what route the team would go," Humphrey said. "I felt like, even depth wise, we needed another piece. Lo and behold, the guy that was going to start was here all along."

The Ravens didn't see it coming either. In May, Head Coach John Harbaugh said Stephens would focus on playing safety. The team added Rock Ya-Sin this offseason and had a couple up-and-coming cornerbacks in Jalyn Armour-Davis and Pepe Williams. Baltimore signed Ronald Darby in mid-August, one day after Humphrey underwent foot surgery.

Partly out of necessity, Stephens was plugged in at cornerback. Eight weeks into the season, he hasn't left and there are no signs that he will.

Stephens has played every single defensive snap this season except for when many starters were pulled near the end of the Lions blowout game. Meanwhile, Ya-Sin and Darby didn't see any defensive snaps last week in Arizona.

Stephens ranks No. 36 among all NFL cornerbacks (minimum 50 snaps), according to Pro Football Focus grades. He's given up just 10.5 yards per reception (94 cornerbacks have surrendered more). He's surrendered a catch just 62.5% of the time when targeted (108 cornerbacks yielding more).

Despite this, offensive coordinators and quarterbacks keep coming at Stephens. They aren't believers yet either. No cornerback in the league has been targeted more than Stephens (64 times), yet he hasn't given up a single touchdown yet.

Being doubted is nothing new for Stephens. He started his college career as a running back at UCLA, and was pretty good at it, but couldn't break out of a backup role in three seasons. So Stephens decided to bet on himself.

Stephens wanted to try cornerback, a position he had long believed he could play. He always loved the physicality of the sport and grew up in Texas a fan of the Ravens' defense. Deep down, he felt like a defender.

Pretty much everybody told him it was a mistake. Why would he give up a scholarship at a premier program such as UCLA for essentially a tryout somewhere else? And who goes from running back to cornerback?

"They were like, 'No way, no chance,'" Stephens said on "The Lounge" podcast. "It took a little convincing."

Stephens made his own videos showing him doing basic cornerback drills, such as backpedaling, and sent them to schools. Stephens' coach at Plano Senior High School, just a little north of Dallas, put him in touch with the defensive backs coach at nearby SMU, Kevin Curtis. Stephens essentially asked for a tryout, and if he proved himself, they could put him on scholarship. He had already graduated from UCLA in three years.

"I just want the opportunity to showcase my skills," Stephens told Curtis.

More than a dozen schools were interested in the transfer, but they only wanted him as a running back. SMU was the only school to offer him a spot as a cornerback.

Stephens quickly became a starter in his first year and was soon their best defensive player. After two standout seasons and a combined 22 passes defensed, the Ravens drafted Stephens in the third round in 2021.

"I definitely knew that I could play at this level," Stephens said. "It was just a matter of what team am I going to do it on. This was my dream."

As soon as the pick was announced, NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah questioned whether Stephens could play cornerback in the league, saying he expected him to ultimately land at safety. To be fair, the Ravens didn't know for sure either.

Stephens started 11 games at safety as a rookie, stepping in for injured DeShon Elliott. He started four games last season at cornerback, filling in well when Peters went down until an acute illness sent Stephens to the hospital at the end of the year.

Stephens' calling card entering his third season was still as a jack-of-all-trades defensive back, and with other cornerbacks coming up the Ravens' system, Harbaugh thought Stephens would focus on safety this year.

Stephens' offseason trainer, Clay Mack from Clay Mack Skills Academy in Dallas, encouraged Stephens to continue training as a cornerback. Those skills would still translate to safety, he said. Mack and another trainer, "Flight," have been in Stephens' corner and part of his transition from the beginning. They also train other prominent NFL players, including Seahawks safety Jamal Adams.

In one training session, Adams took particular notice of Stephens, asking Mack who Stephens was and saying, "Man, I like him."

Physically, Stephens has always had the traits. Ravens running back Justice Hill, who was a five-star defensive back in high school, said it comes down to one thing in particular.

"If you've got sweet feet, you can make the transition," Hill said. "It takes a little time, but if you've got good footwork and you work at it, you can make it happen."

Stephens' work ethic and steady improvement is what coaches and teammates point to for his breakout season. While not many people believed he could play cornerback, Stephens kept working at it. He's still relatively young to the position, but he's becoming one of the best.

"He's learned a lot, but he's just a talented guy," Harbaugh said. "He's really diligent about technique, tries to do all the details and the little things right. It's really showing up in the way he's playing." 

Humphrey recently said that Stephens is playing at a Pro Bowl level.

"It's continued patience, continued work," Humphrey said. "If you continue to work at something, you'll eventually improve and get better, and that's what he's done."

Had Geno Stone not stolen a second interception away from Stephens in Sunday's win in Arizona, the buzz around Stephens would have been much louder. Stephens' reaction to missing out on his third interception of the season?

"I gotta go attack," Stephens said on the sideline.

"I like 'B Steve' a lot," linebacker Roquan Smith said. "I never see the guy waiver or complain or anything like that, and I just respect the way he comes out each and every day and just wants to get better, and that's all he focuses on. [The] attention to detail is so crucial to him, and I have a lot of respect for him and love playing with him, and the best is still yet to come for him."

Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald credited Stephens for his attitude about being moved between safety and cornerback in the Ravens defense. Ask Stephens to this day what he prefers to play, and he'll still say he just wants to be on the field (though it's apparent that he loves corner).

"I'm really excited for 'B-Steve'" Macdonald said. "He's put in a lot of work, and he's been moved around a lot, and it's great to find him a home, where he can feel like he can dedicate his craft and his skills. He has an awesome skillset; we've always known that about him. But it's not easy moving around. Going from the beginning of his football career, and then all of a sudden you're in the NFL, and then you're asked to play defensive back; there is a lot of stuff going on back there, and he's handled it tremendously."

Does Stephens have a forever home at cornerback?

"You know me; it's hard for me go jump in headfirst on that way one," Macdonald said. "But there's a pretty good chance he's going to stay there."

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