After years of searching for a top-flight third cornerback, the Ravens thought they had the solution when they opened the summer.
Tavon Young, who started 11 games last year as a rookie, was slated to bump inside to his natural slot position. For as good as the 5-foot-9 Young was on the outside last year, he should be even better inside, the Ravens thought. That is until Young went down with a season-ending ACL tear during organized team activities.
Up next was Maurice Canady, another second-year cornerback who missed much of last year because of injury. On the same day Young went down in June, Canady stepped in and grabbed three interceptions. He was one of the defense's most impressive performers during offseason camps.
Then Canady suffered a knee injury (MCL) on the second day of training camp, and will be lost for an extended period of time. Head Coach John Harbaugh said he could come back later this season.
The Ravens still have good depth at outside cornerback, but are without their top two nickel options. So what's the solution? They're in the process of trying to figure it out.
"I was disappointed because I thought we had two real good ones with Tavon, who we knew, and Maurice, who was really doing an outstanding job," Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said Friday.
"But I think we've got some other competition in there. … We'll just keep rolling a bunch of guys in there until we find the right combination."
Pees specifically named veteran Lardarius Webb, undrafted rookie Jaylen Hill, veteran free-agent addition Brandon Boykin and rookie first-round pick Marlon Humphrey as options, but didn't stop there.
"There's probably not a corner that at some point in time won't get reps in there so we can look and find out whether that would be a good spot for him or not be a good spot for him," Pees said.
Nickel cornerback is a unique position, and it's not easy to find somebody to do it exceptionally well. Here's Harbaugh's detailed explanation on what it takes to play the position:
"Characteristics of a nickel slot corner? I would start with a pit bull mentality in coverage. You are going to be playing quick, fast guys. You are going to have to deal with picks and a lot of traffic in there. A lot of it is man coverage. Secondly, you have to be smart and understand routes and how the coverage matches the route. It is a little quicker inside than outside. You have to be a little bit like a linebacker, except you are going against all the route combinations from extended receivers, so you have to pass things off certain ways, and you have to know what you are doing. It takes intelligence, it takes experience, and it takes a guy with a feel for the game who can sort stuff. Then, the third thing is you have to be tough against the run, because you are essentially a linebacker in there when it comes to them running the ball. It takes a unique cat to play that position, and that is why those guys are considered starters and they stick around for a long time."
It's a tough job, and the Ravens have four weeks to figure out who's up for it. Here's a look at each of the primary options:
Webb played in the slot early in his career before shifting primarily outside and then to safety, so he has the experience and understanding of the position. For being 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, Webb has never shied away from contact. He throws his body into the mix and can help against the run. Now that the Ravens have their two starting safeties with Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, Webb could be utilized elsewhere.
Pees and the Ravens would rather keep Humphrey outside and let him learn that position instead of bouncing the first-round rookie in and out. However, circumstances could change that. Humphrey has been very impressive over the summer and in training camp. He has the speed and quickness to hang with anyone, and has been making plays on the ball. He's also a physical corner who could support versus the run. If the Ravens want their top three cornerbacks on the field, Humphrey would presumably be the third. But he's best suited outside, and that's where his future resides. Humphrey is currently sitting out of training camp practices due to an undisclosed injury.
The Ravens signed Boykin soon after Young's injury. Boykin, 26, is entering his sixth NFL season and has a lot of experience in the slot. He was one of the league's best nickel cornerbacks in 2013 when he intercepted six passes, made 42 tackles and forced two fumbles. He's shaking off some rust after missing all last season with a torn pectoral muscle.
The undrafted rookie free agent has caught the eye of coaches. He starred at Jacksonville State, where he had 39 consecutive starts to close his career and notched 13 interceptions. He led his conference with six interceptions and 13 passes defensed as a senior.