Are Humphrey and Smith Ravens' Best Tandem Since McAlister and Starks?
It's no secret that the Ravens' secondary is loaded with talent, but could the cornerback tandem of Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith turn out to be the greatest in team history?
Ebony Bird's Richard Bradshaw makes the case that Humphrey and Smith have the potential to be even better than the duo of Chris McAlister and Duane Starks, who played together from 1999-2001 and were key players on the record-setting 2000 defense that carried the Ravens to their first Super Bowl victory.
"With Hall of Fame safety Rod Woodson right behind [McAlister and Starks], it was hard not to target these ball-hawks for fear of Woodson. McAlister and Starks would always make them pay for this mistake," Bradshaw wrote. "No other cornerback in the team's history has been able to match-up to these two individually, let alone as a duo. That will change in 2019 with the combination of Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith."
Humphrey and Smith, both former first-round draft picks, were members of a Ravens secondary last season that finished second in average passer rating allowed. Entering his ninth season (and the final year of his contract), Smith has shown the ability to be a shutdown corner, and Humphrey appears to be on the verge of stardom as he enters his third season.
As Bradshaw pointed out, the biggest difference separating McAlister and Starks from Humphrey and Smith is turnovers. During their three seasons together, McAlister and Starks combined for 25 interceptions; Humphrey and Smith have a total of nine interceptions in their two seasons as teammates.
"That could, and should, all change in 2019, however for many reasons," Bradshaw wrote. "Of all the changes the Ravens will experience on defense, none will be more impactful than the addition of free safety Earl Thomas. With a true center fielder in Baltimore's secondary (and the best since Ed Reed), Thomas will force quarterbacks to the outside to try and complete passes. That couldn't be a worse mistake for them. While neither Humphrey nor Smith are known for having extraordinary ball skills, it'll be hard not to have career-highs in interceptions with the volume of bad throws coming their way.
"Combine the turnovers with the ridiculously low passer rating they will allow, and the media, not just the fans, will be talking about Humphrey and Smith all season long. These two will challenge the likes of Jacksonville and New England's corners as the top tandem in 2019."
NFL Network's Max Starks on AFC North: 'Remember Who the Champs Are'
NFL.com's Gil Brandt ranked the 10 most talented teams in the league, and one AFC North team made the list. As you're probably already guessed, it was the Cleveland Browns.
There's no denying the Browns have a lot of talented players, but as the saying goes, games aren't won on paper, they're won on TV. NFL Network analyst Max Starks, a former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle, said the defending division champion Ravens should not be discounted. He expects the Ravens, Browns and Steelers to battle it out for the division crown.
"You have to remember who the champs are. It's the Baltimore Ravens, and Lamar Jackson's going to have something to say about that in Year 2," Starks said. "You can't just dispel that with the addition of some sexy picks. … Lamar Jackson's only going to get better over the years, and I think this year especially, you add Mark Ingram in the backfield, you've got another offensive weapon, and another year of maturity where he's going to be able to pass the ball and they're going to open the offense more for him, so I don't look past them. "
Starks said he's not overly concerned that the Ravens lost several key players on defense.
"One thing you can always count on in Baltimore is defense," Starks said. "Those guys are going to step up. Yes, you lose C.J. Mosley to the Jets; 'Peanut' Onwuasor hopefully will answer the call. Eric Weddle is gone from that team, but you get an Earl Thomas. Za'Darius [Smith] I think is the only one that I think really, you're leading sack guy has to be replaced along with Terrell Suggs."
On a side note, high expectations for the Browns this season could mean that the biggest rivalry in the AFC North in 2019 is not Ravens-Steelers. At least's that the opinion of Sporting News' Tadd Haislop, Vinny Iyer and Bill Bender, who ranked the NFL's 10 best rivalries heading into the season.
They had Browns-Steelers at No. 3 on the list, three spots ahead of Ravens-Steelers.
"With all due respect to the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, Cleveland's arrival as an AFC North contender, combined with its deeply embedded hatred for Pittsburgh, means this rivalry is arguably as hot as any in the NFL," they wrote. "There is no team the Browns want to beat more than the Steelers, and even though the Ravens are still a factor, the Steelers' games against the Browns this season might be key to their chances of getting back to the top of the division."
Ravens' 2016 Draft Class Could Be Vital to 2019 Success
Several players from the Ravens' 2016 draft class could play significant roles in how successful the team is this season, according to Baltimore Beatdown's Kyle P Barber.
Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, the sixth overall pick in 2016, is a vital member of the offense, Barber wrote.
"Sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson needs more protection than ever before, and the left tackle position is quite possibly the second-most valuable in the game," Barber wrote. "Stanley's performance week-to-week could be indicative of the offenses' performance throughout their 16-game season."
The other 2016 draft pick Barber believes could step up for the offense in 2019 is running back Kenneth Dixon, a name that likely surprises some fans because of his history of injuries and suspensions.
"He's a complete back, in my mind. He runs hard, yet utilizes his speed, strength and agility when necessary," Barber wrote of the fourth-round selection. "He's been grinding all offseason, and though [Ravens General Manager] Eric DeCosta signed Mark Ingram in free agency, he won't be the only player used by the Ravens."
Ingram, Gus Edwards and rookie Justice Hill are above Dixon on the depth chart, but Dixon has shown flashes of his potential, including during the Ravens' surge in the second half of the season. Since entering the league, Dixon has broken 58 tackles on 193 career touches, the best mark in the NFL during that span, according to Pro Football Focus.
"[Dixon's] talent is undeniable," The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec wrote. "But his first challenge will be staying healthy and making the team. The latter is hardly a formality. If Dixon is healthy and has a good summer, he could enter that mix as well."
On defense, Barber identified outside linebacker Matthew Judon (fifth round), slot cornerback Tavon Young (fourth round) and defensive tackle Willie Henry (fourth round) as 2016 draft picks who are key players.
"Judon is now the old head in the OLB room, and his play may dictate the dominance in 2019," Barber wrote. "While Judon is the noise-maker, Baltimore's slot cornerback is an assassin, quietly bullying any receiver who comes his way.
"[Henry's] a key ingredient to the interior pass-rushing unit, and with the Ravens missing out on Gerald McCoy, he's more important than ever. Henry has a real opportunity to break out in 2019 after suffering a season-ending injury last October. With a bigger stake in rotation, Willie could take double his career sack total (4.5)."
One player from the 2016 class who Barber didn't mention is wide receiver Chris Moore (fourth round), who Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti recently said was a candidate to have a breakout season.
Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh expressed similar confidence in Moore.
"It's up to the player to make the move and do something about it," Harbaugh said. "But I would say Chris is ready to do that and has been ready to do that. He practices really hard, he works hard in the weight room, he knows the offense very well, and he makes spectacular catches out here very often."
The 2000 Ravens defense came in at No. 3 on Bleacher Report's Gary Davenport's ranking of the top 10 defenses of all time.
Judon and Ravens defensive end Chris Wormley discussed the authenticity of the moon landing on 105.7's "Big Bad Morning Show."