Earl Thomas III, Jimmy Smith Appear Primed to Hit the Ground Running
Expectations are extremely high for the Ravens' loaded secondary, and the fact that safety Earl Thomas III and cornerback Jimmy Smith appear to be in great shape is yet another reason for fans to be excited about the unit.
The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec observed that both veterans look primed and ready to go.
A year ago, Thomas was coming off season-ending knee surgery and getting acclimated to a new system after spending eight years with the Seattle Seahawks.
"If some of his Instagram workout posts are any indication, safety Earl Thomas … seems to be in better shape than he was last year," Zrebiec wrote. "It's not that Thomas was out of shape by any stretch, but at least early in the season, it looked like he was still moving tentatively at times as he gained more and more confidence in his surgically repaired leg."
Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale used the versatile Thomas all over the field, which was a new role for him. Thomas ended up being a vital component of the Ravens' fourth-ranked defense and was named to his seventh Pro Bowl.
Thomas finished with just two interceptions, but it's impossible to rack up gaudy statistics for interceptions and pass deflections when quarterbacks make the wise decision to not throw in your direction. Thomas allowed only six receptions all season (on 14 targets), according to Pro Football Focus.
As for Smith, the 2011 first-round pick told Zrebiec he entered training camp in the best shape of his career. Staying healthy has been a challenge for Smith, who has not played in all 16 regular-season games since 2015.
With All-Pros Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters forming one of the NFL's elite cornerback duos, Smith is no longer a starter, but that doesn't mean he won't be a significant contributor.
"The Ravens use extra defensive backs so often and defensive coordinator Don 'Wink' Martindale is known to get creative with his personnel," Zrebiec wrote. "If Smith is at the top of his game — and team officials are certainly happy with his readiness for camp — Martindale will make sure he's on the field a bunch."
Smith, who signed a one-year deal this offseason to remain in Baltimore, may play a hybrid cornerback/safety role this season that could utilize him in specific matchups. He said he's ready to enter a new phase of his career.
"Initially, you're like, 'I've got to go prove I can still be a starter in this league,'" Smith said on “The Lounge” podcast in March. "But I took a step back and realized this could be a blessing. I'm still going to get to play a ton, play for my team, but also not have as much wear and tear on my body and help me play this game I love for as long as I want."
Ravens Ranked No. 1 in Under-25 Talent
Not only do the Ravens arguably have the most talented roster in the league, but they also may possess the most talented group of young players in the NFL. The Ravens are No. 1 in Football Outsiders’ rankings of all 32 teams by their under-25 talent.
To show whata difference a year can make, the Ravens were No. 25 in last year's rankings. The ratings are based on a combination of the players' talent and the value and length of their current contracts.
For the Ravens, it obviously starts with 23-year old quarterback Lamar Jackson, who became the youngest MVP in NFL history last season.
"Football Outsiders research has shown that quarterbacks tend to make their biggest performance jumps from Year 1 to Year 2, but Lamar Jackson's sophomore breakout was the Bob Beamon of those," Scott Spratt wrote for ESPN.com. " … In 2019, Jackson became the kind of quarterback who can carry a franchise no matter their system or other problems."
Jackson doesn't need to carry the franchise, though, as he is surrounded by young talent on both sides of the ball.
"The Ravens have so much young talent that they could have pushed for the top spot in these rankings even without Jackson under center," Spratt wrote.
In addition to tight end Mark Andrews (23), who led all tight ends with 10 touchdown catches last season, and wide receiver Marquise "Hollywood" Brown (23), who tied a franchise rookie record with seven touchdown receptions last year and appears poised for a breakout season, the Ravens have a number of other young weapons on offense.
"Jackson seldom needed to open up the offense beyond its running game and tight end targets, but 2019 first-rounder Marquise Brown still stretched the field with more than one-fifth of his catches coming on passes thrown 20 or more yards in the air," Spratt wrote. "Miles Boykin can do the same and should also contribute more in the red zone in 2020 with his exceptional size at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds and leaping ability.
"Third-round receiver Devin Duvernay complements Brown and Boykin with his slot quickness, and second-round running back J.K. Dobbins should seamlessly replace an aging Mark Ingram either in 2021 when Ingram's contract escalates or in 2022 when it expires. Finally, right tackle Orlando Brown was one of five Baltimore linemen with 500 or more snaps and a 1.5% blown block rate or better. His development into a Pro Bowl blocker should help the team survive the loss of retired eventual Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda."
Humphrey (24) is the top under-25 player on the Ravens defense, which figures to be even more formidable this season with the addition of rookies Patrick Queen, Justin Madubuike and Malik Harrison.
"If the Ravens had any weakness in 2019, it was on run defense," Spratt wrote. "But the team likely erased that deficiency with its first- and third-round draft selections of linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison, the former of whom has the speed and athleticism to excel in coverage and play all three downs."
Peters and Ravens Defense Projected to Lead League in Interceptions
Peters has been an interception machine throughout his career, so it's no surprise he is being projected to lead the league in interceptions this season by NFL Network analytics expert Cynthia Frelund.
Based on Frelund's model, Peters will intercept five passes in 2020, matching his total in 2019, when he had three interceptions in 10 games with the Ravens and two in six games with the Los Angeles Rams.
"The Ravens' addition of Calais Campbell to the defensive front helps drive more consistent pressure, which is also correlated with greater chances of earning an interception," Frelund wrote. "The other factor working in Peters' favor is his aggressive playing style. And it sure doesn't hurt that he's lining up on the opposite side of the field as Marlon Humphrey, who, on an almost-weekly basis, ranks among my model's top three corners. With the CB duo of Peters and Humphrey, Baltimore boasts the highest pick projection as a total defense, as well."
The Ravens were in the middle of the pack (16th) in team interceptions last season with 13. With the additions up front, Baltimore should get more pressure, which could lead to a spike in takeaways from a talented secondary.
A couple weeks ago, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah named Peters his sleeper pick for Defensive Player of the Year and said "he might pick off 10 or 11 passes this year."
Peters led the league in interceptions (eight) as a rookie with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2015, and his 27 career interceptions are more than any other NFL cornerback since he entered the league. He returned a league-best three interceptions for touchdowns last season.