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Eisenberg: Following Draft, Cornerback Is Ravens' No. 1 Gamble


I'm pretty sure the Ravens wouldn't change much, if anything, if they could go back and take another shot at last weekend's draft. They're excited about how it turned out, and many analysts have praised their selections and strategy.

But there's one caveat. By not selecting a cornerback until the fourth round, the Ravens made it clearer than ever that they're going to depend mostly on returning players, as opposed to new blood, to receive more consistent play at cornerback in 2015. 

For a team that doesn't have an especially long list of questions to answer heading into 2015, that now ranks as the No. 1 gamble.

After a 2014 season in which problems at cornerback bothered the Ravens and possibly derailed their Super Bowl bid, GM Ozzie Newsome pledged to make a fix similar to the one he engineered on the offensive line when it was a problem a year ago.

"As we move forward for 2015," Newsome said at a press conference on Feb. 24, "I would look at it as this time last year we were talking about the offensive line, and I don't think we'll be talking a whole lot about the offensive line going into 2015, because when we attacked that, we did it in a good way."

To fix the offensive line a year ago, Newsome mostly deployed talent already on the roster. He re-signed a cornerstone (tackle Eugene Monroe), counted on several players to recover from injuries (guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele) and counted on an unheralded young guy becoming a starter (tackle Rick Wagner). The only new blood was center Jeremy Zuttah, obtained in a trade.

Newsome is following a similar blueprint at cornerback this year. He has re-signed a cornerstone (Jimmy Smith) and is counting on several players recovering from injuries (Smith, Lardarius Webb, Asa Jackson and more). He also is counting on unheralded young guys becoming contributors (Rashaan Melvin, Chris Greenwood and more).

The only difference this year is Newsome has not added a starter, as he did a year ago on the offensive line with Zuttah. The Ravens didn't sign a corner in free agency, allowing the likes of Byron Maxwell, Kareem Jackson and Cary Williams to land elsewhere. That led to a speculation about thempossibly selecting a cornerback early in the draft, but they waited until overall pick No. 136 to select Tray Walker.

Although Newsome pointed out Saturday that he isn't done constructing the roster for 2015, he could have a tough time adding a difference-making cornerback now. A trade or June 1 salary cap cut could always bring one to Baltimore, but teams tend to hold on to quality corners, so the odds aren't good.

With all that in mind, can the Ravens really expect the better play they surely need at the corners in 2015? I would say so … as long as Smith and Webb stay on the field.

The odds of that are decent. Smith, 26, was emerging as one of the game's best pass defenders in 2014 before an October foot injury ended his season, and he's expected to make a full recovery. Webb, 29, had problems as he dealt with nerves issues in his back early in the season, but both his back and his performances improved late in the season, and he has spoken optimistically about his prospects going forward.

As for the No. 3 corner job, a major role given how many offenses rely on three-wide receiver sets, the Jacksons (Asa and Tray), Melvin, Greenwood and others will battle for snaps. Melvin, who started playoff games in 2014, and Tray Jackson have the size and speed to become "press" corners. Jackson has held up when not battling injuries.

But it's a blueprint that does generate questions. Can Smith and Webb really avoid a recurrence of the injuries that have plagued them? Can any of the young guys competing for the No. 3 spot step up, much as Wagner did a year ago? Is there enough overall depth?

The answers aren't clear, but Newsome is optimistic. Injuries shredded his cornerback plans a year ago, and it's hard to envision that much bad luck befalling the Ravens gain. After the draft concluded Saturday night, he was asked if his focus on positions other than cornerback constituted a "statement of confidence" in the corners already on the roster.

He said it was.

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