Among the things Ravens fans shouldn't expect this offseason is a big shake-up in the secondary.
"I think the biggest move is 'Webby' [Lardarius Webb] to safety," General Manager Ozzie Newsome said in Thursday's season-ending press conference.
The Ravens will return top cornerback Jimmy Smith next season. Webb is slated to come back, although at a different position. Starting safeties Will Hill and Kendrick Lewis, as well as other young up-and-coming reserves, are also under contract and slated to return.
"[The secondary] is trending up," Newsome said.
The Ravens allowed a whopping average of 283.9 passing yards per game over their first eight contests. Big plays directly led to losses against Oakland, Cincinnati, Cleveland, San Francisco and Arizona.
However, Baltimore's pass defense improved by more than 100 yards per game over the second half.
The Ravens' 182.6 passing yards allowed per game over the second half of the season was the fewest in the NFL. They had the best pass defense and second-best defensive overall in yards surrendered.
Here's a look at some of the highlights from the final eight games:
- Week 10: Held Jacksonville's dangerous passing offense to 168 passing yards.
- Week 11: Handcuffed Rams backup Case Keenum to just 131 passing yards.
- Week 13: Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill had just 86 passing yards on 9-of-19 completions.
- Week 16: Steelers Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown was held to 61 yards receiving and Ben Roethlisberger was picked off twice and threw no touchdowns.
- Week 17: Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green was held to four catches for 34 yards.
The Ravens didn't make a whole lot of changes with personnel, but mainly altered their pass defense scheme. They began playing more zone defense, and Head Coach John Harbaugh stressed "minding your luggage" at other times in man-to-man coverage, meaning to simply shadow the receiver instead of trying to make too many reads.
It also largely helped that cornerback Smith's foot (Lisfranc) improved as the season went on and veteran cornerback Shareece Wright, who the Ravens claimed after he was released from San Francisco, emerged as a starter. Wright is a pending unrestricted free agent who Newsome said he'll "look at going forward."
Wright's emergence enabled Baltimore to shift Webb to safety, which is where he projects long-term moving forward. Newsome likes the change for Webb, and thinks that could help Baltimore make more interceptions. They had a league-low six this season.
"The way the game is going, to have someone that has some range – has some really good ball skills – back in the back end is very [much] needed," Newsome said.
The Ravens also have some other young cornerbacks and safeties that they're expecting to contribute.
Safety Matt Elam (biceps) will return. The Ravens' 2013 first-round pick missed the entire season. Baltimore has also been grooming 2014 third-round safety Terrence Brooks and 2015 fourth-round cornerback Tray Walker.
"I think [Cornerbacks Coach] Matt [Weiss] and [Secondary Coach] Chris [Hewitt] did a really good job of developing the guys in the secondary," Newsome said. "John spent a year as a secondary coach with the Eagles, and I think he has input, as well as [Defensive Coordinator] Dean [Pees], who was a secondary coach."
The Ravens will also welcome back Will Davis, who they acquired via trade from Miami, early in the season. Davis did a stellar job against the Steelers' Brown before the corner went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 5.
If Davis isn't ready to start outside and if the Ravens don't re-sign Wright, however, they could have an opening at starting cornerback opposite Smith. That could be filled via free agency or the draft, where Florida State's Jalen Ramsey and Florida's Vernon Hargreaves are expected to be top-15 picks.
"Would we like to add some more pieces if they're available to us?" Newsome said. "We will definitely add them to it as we move forward."