When you look at the Ravens’ secondary, you see the potential for something special.
Start with the cornerbacks. Jimmy Smith is healthy and locking down receivers as usual. Brandon Carr, new haircut and all, looks ageless. Marlon Humphrey appears ready for stardom. Tavon Young is scrappy as ever after signing a new contract this offseason.
As for the safeties, free-agent acquisition Earl Thomas has made the Pro Bowl six times. Tony Jefferson is coming off his best year with the Ravens, and he is healthier after offseason ankle surgery. Special teams ace Anthony Levine Sr. remains capable of playing safety and linebacker at a high level, particularly in passing situations. DeShon Elliott, who missed the entire 2018 season with a broken arm, has been making plays all over the field during OTAs and mandatory minicamp, and third-year safety Chuck Clark has earned the nickname “Little [Eric] Weddle” for his smarts on the back end.
Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale got a glimpse of what he wants during Wednesday’s practice, which was dominated by the secondary at certain points.
“What did we have, six picks today?” Martindale said. “It’s no secret that we’re going to lean heavily on our secondary with the group we have back there, especially with the addition of Earl Thomas.”
This could be the deepest secondary the Ravens have ever had, and it’s clearly one of the deepest in the NFL. In addition to the top four cornerbacks, Baltimore drafted promising rookie Iman Marshall in the fourth round. Talented backup corners like Anthony Averett, Maurice Canady and Stanley Jean-Baptiste might be competing for starting jobs with another team, but in Baltimore, they are battling just to get on the field, or perhaps even to make the roster.
If you want to say the Ravens have the NFL’s best secondary, Head Coach John Harbaugh won’t stop you. But he wants that status to be earned.
“The standard is high for those guys,” Harbaugh said. “We have a lot of resources committed to the secondary, and we think those guys are really, really good players. We value the secondary. We value coverage. We think it’s really important with the defense that we play and the way we structure our defense. So, we love having those guys back there, and I expect those guys to play at the highest level in the National Football League this year.”
The Ravens have $57,462,550 tied up in their secondary this season, according to Spotrac. That’s the most in the NFL and more than 30 percent of their salary cap. When Baltimore lost inside linebacker C.J. Mosley in free agency, they pivoted to sign Thomas. The Ravens could have made a move with Smith, who is the second-highest cornerback in the league, but kept him at his current rate despite having two other clear starters in Carr and Humphrey.
Having secondary depth will allow Martindale to call multiple coverages, with the potential to confuse opposing quarterbacks. The Ravens will also be less susceptible to injuries, knowing that if someone in their secondary goes down, there’s a capable player ready to pick up the slack.
Despite having the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense, the Ravens only had nine interceptions last year, tied for 26th in the NFL. The Ravens would like to double that interception total this season, and if that happens, it will put their offense in more advantageous positions to score. The addition of Thomas, who has 28 career interceptions and logged three in four games last year, should certainly help with that.
“You’re starting to see him more and more get comfortable in the system and make plays,” Martindale said.
“Earl has obviously been one of the best in the game for a very long time, which he still is, and his instincts, I believe, are some of the best I’ve seen,” Jefferson added.
This will be Jefferson’s seventh NFL season and he previously played in a secondary in Arizona that included two Pro Bowl players – cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Tyrann Mathieu. However, Jefferson thinks this Baltimore secondary is the deepest he has ever been part of.
“I’m going with this secondary, for sure,” Jefferson said. “Just across the board, you could look at our starters, and it’s very eye-opening, but you could also look at our depth and who we have behind each starter, and they also, I believe, are starters in this league as well.”
The Ravens will experiment with different coverages and packages during training camp, and the secondary depth could help their pass rush. Baltimore lost 15 ½ combined sacks from last season with the departures of Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs, but the secondary hopes to create more coverage sacks caused by quarterbacks unable to find open receivers.
There was a time during Smith’s career when the Ravens had problems matching up with top receivers when Smith didn’t play. Now Smith is surrounded by superb talent, a secondary that wants to play even better than it looks on paper.
“They believe in us,” Smith said. “[Owner Steve] Bisciotti believes in us. Our coaching staff and the people upstairs, they believe in our secondary. We have a lot of vets back there. We kind of have to be the driving force for this defense this year, since we are the ones with the most experience and game knowledge.”