As training camp nears, the Ravens have questions at most positions – some big, some little. But cornerback? That’s a question-free zone.
The Ravens have so many quality corners that it seems clear who’ll make the team. Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey will share the outside positions. Tavon Young ranks among the league’s highest-paid slot corners. Anthony Averett and Iman Marshall, recent fourth-round draft picks, are developing.
That’s six guys right there who seemingly are locks. The team seldom keeps more. Yet that leaves out veterans Maurice Canady, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Cyrus Jones, all of whom seem worthy of a job in the league, and rookie Terrell Bonds, who excelled at minicamp.
Honestly, the best question at the position is do the Ravens really need all these corners?
No other NFL team is investing as much in the position in 2019. According to Spotrac, almost one-fifth of the Ravens’ entire salary cap allotment (19.9 percent) is going to corners. That’s almost double the league average (10.46 percent) and exceeds what the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers, Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills combined have invested in corners.
The Ravens’ ultra-heavy investment inevitably prompts speculation that they’re going overboard, taking their emphasis on corners so far that they’re possibly undermanned elsewhere.
But I’m not going to quibble with it. Bottom line, I think the answer to the above question is, yes, they do need all those corners, especially at the top of the depth chart.
In a league where most teams rely on their passing game to move the ball, the ability to defend the pass is critical. Former Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome loved saying a team “could never have enough corners.” The organization learned that the hard way when injuries to corners short-circuited a possible Super Bowl run in 2014.
I’m sure the Ravens could get by with trimming the top of their cornerback depth chart and shifting that money elsewhere. But by holding on to everyone, they’ve turned a critical position into an absolute strength.
They also have girded themselves for the injuries that tend to occur at the position. Ravens GM Eric DeCosta has compared quality corners to fast sports cars, i.e., they’re expensive and wonderful to own but also tend to break down and spend time in the shop.
That’s another lesson the Ravens have learned the hard way with Smith, their highest-paid corner, who has dealt with his share of injuries over the years.
But Smith was healthy last season after returning from a suspension in Week 5, and I believe that was at least partly attributable to a change in how the Ravens allotted snaps at outside corner. Instead of relying on two starters, they rotated Carr, Humphrey and Smith in and out, giving each breaks.
It not only helped them stay healthy, but also helped them raise their games. Carr had one of his best seasons at age 32. Humphrey emerged as one of the league’s top young corners. Smith played terrific football down the stretch.
Rotating three outside corners worked so well that I’m confident Ravens Defensive Coordinator Don (Wink) Martindale will follow the same blueprint in 2019. Why wouldn’t he?
One of the hottest debates in the burgeoning world of football analytics is whether it’s more important to have a great pass rush or stout pass defense. Interesting question. I’m going to let the smart guys with their abacuses provide the answer.
But I do know this: You’d better be super-strong in at least one of those areas, pass defense or pass rush, if you want to entertain thoughts of making the playoffs.
The Ravens seemingly have taken a side in the debate. They let two of their best pass rushers depart via free agency this year rather than pay the high prices they commanded. Meanwhile, they shelled out handsomely to re-up with Carr and retain Smith.
They’ve gone all in at cornerback. And I’m guessing that not for one second in 2019 will they regret it.