The Ravens secondary was the source of much discussion during the 2014 season.
The unit was a carousel throughout the year, as the Ravens routinely had to shuffle pieces because of injuries or ineffectiveness. By the time the season ended, the Ravens had placed five cornerbacks on injured reserve, used four starting safeties, and had nine corners in the defensive rotation.
Bolstering the unit is a priority heading into the offseason, but Head Coach John Harbaugh does not expect massive changes over the next few months.
"It's really not a major overhaul in the sense of everybody is going to be cleaned out and we're going to bring a bunch of new guys in," Harbaugh said. "There are a lot of good players sitting in there."
Here's a full breakdown of the secondary heading into free agency and the offseason:
J. Smith's Health Status
The biggest blow to the secondary came in Week 8 when top cornerback Jimmy Smith went down with a season-ending foot injury. Up to that point, Smith had played at the highest level of his career and was emerging as a Pro Bowl- caliber cornerback. Smith suffered a Lisfranc injury, which required surgery and has an expected six-month recovery time. He is still expected to return in time for training camp, and getting him back to full strength would make a significant difference for the defense. If Smith makes a full recovery and returns to the form he showed last season, then that will go a long way in solidifying the unit.
Webb In Line For Re-Negotiation?
The 2014 season was a grind for cornerback Lardarius Webb. He went down with a back injury the first day of training camp, and remained sidelined for most of the next two months. When he did return, he was clearly hobbled. Webb fought through the pain and got stronger as the year progressed, and he played his best football by the end of the season. If Webb is healthy, he has the ability to be a lockdown cornerback on the opposite side of Smith. Webb has dealt with injuries throughout his career – he has bounced back from two ACL tears – and the Ravens will have to determine if they expect him fully healthy in 2015. Part of the consideration with Webb is that he's in store for a big salary next season, a reported $12 million cap hit, which is the third biggest on the roster behind Haloti Ngata and Joe Flacco. it will be the fourth season under the six-year contract he signed in 2012. The Ravens could try to negotiate with Webb to re-structure his contract and lower his cap hit.
Young Players Gained Experience
The silver lining with all of the injuries last year was that the Ravens had to thrust young players into the lineup to see what they could do. Asa Jackson, Rashaan Melvin and Anthony Levine all got starting experience and showed promise, and they could be back in the defensive rotation next year. Danny Gorrer will also be in the mix as he recovers from a season-ending knee injury. The young players give the Ravens depth in the secondary, and it will make for tight competition in training camp.
For as much attention as the cornerbacks have attracted, the bigger question for the Ravens may be at the safety spot. Darian Stewart is heading into free agency after starting 14 games in Baltimore last year. Matt Elam struggled in his second season, and the Ravens will have to determine what role they have in store for him next year. Elam has moved around the defense the last two years, including time at free safety, strong safety and nickel back. The Ravens could look to cement him at a particular spot, depending on where he looks most comfortable. Free safety Will Hill is a restricted free agent, but the Ravens indicated after the season that they plan to bring him back with high hopes for his development. Hill is an extremely talented player who performed well after serving a six-game suspension, and Harbaugh challenged him going into the offseason. Last year's third-round pick Terrence Brooks is a bit of an unknown commodity, as he showed potential but his rookie season was cut short by a knee injury. He could move into a starting role in 2015 depending on how he bounces back from the injury.
Looking To Add Reinforcements
Even if the Ravens get their key pieces back healthy in the secondary, they will still likely look to bolster the group in free agency and/or the draft. They didn't draft a cornerback at all last season and haven't taken one in the top four rounds since drafting Smith in 2011. That could likely change this season. General Manager Ozzie Newsome will also scour the free-agent market to see if he can add an affordable option to the roster.