With all passes for both training camp and the July 31 stadium practice claimed in under 24 hours, there’s no shortage of fan excitement as the Ravens ramp up preparations for the 2021 season next week.
But with that enthusiasm comes great expectations for a franchise that’s won 25 regular-season games over the last two years. The Ravens will not only be aiming to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, but a deeper January run is in order after back-to-back exits in the divisional round. In the eyes of many, it will be Super Bowl or bust as a talented roster becomes more and more expensive.
Ahead of the start of training camp next week, we’ll take a look at a position group for the 2021 Ravens every day:
Projected depth chart entering training camp:
STRONG SAFETY – Chuck Clark, Anthony Levine, Geno Stone, Ar’Darius Washington
FREE SAFETY – DeShon Elliott, Brandon Stephens, Jordan Richards, Nigel Warrior
Why to be impressed: After cutting 2019 Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas for conduct detrimental to the team three weeks before the 2020 season opener, the Ravens were very pleased to have both Clark and Elliott play over 1,000 snaps to lead the back end of a defense that finished seventh in total yards allowed, second in points allowed, sixth in passing yards allowed, and 10th in pass defense efficiency. Clark, 26, solidified his standing as a defensive leader — again relaying Wink Martindale’s calls in the huddle — and has shown no shortage of versatility by racking up 27 pressures on 177 pass-rushing snaps as a blitzer over the last two seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. Meanwhile, the 24-year-old Elliott did his best to make fans forget about the mercurial Thomas by finishing fourth on the team in tackles (80) and adding 2 1/2 sacks after injuries limited him to just 40 defensive snaps over his first two seasons. Levine and Richards ranked in Baltimore’s top four in special-teams snaps and have been dependable contributors for special teams coordinator Chris Horton.
Why to be concerned: As high as the floor was that Clark and Elliott provided at such an affordable cost last season, they didn’t provide a ton of playmaking ability in coverage with just one interception and eight pass breakups total as PFF graded them 27th and 28th respectively among all qualified safeties last season. Depth is the real concern at this position as you can’t assume your starters will play virtually every snap for a second straight year. Levine and Richards provide little defensive value at this point, but the collection of young safeties on the roster are unproven. Though third-round rookie Brandon Stephens could provide interesting versatility at both safety and cornerback, he began his collegiate career as a running back at UCLA and may not be ready to step into a meaningful role as a rookie after playing corner for just two years at SMU. The Ravens re-signed Stone, their 2020 seventh-round pick, in the offseason, but he, Warrior, and Washington look more like camp inventory and practice-squad material until proven otherwise.
Big question: Can the Ravens find more depth and big-play ability in this group?
Given the dynamic play and takeaway ability of star cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, the Ravens don’t need to have the next Ed Reed at safety to have an elite secondary, but concerns about the pass rush will make it even more critical for coverage to be excellent on the back end of the defense. With Elliott entering the final season of his rookie contract, it will be interesting to see whether his solid play from 2020 finds another level after he was finally able to stay on the field. However, such a scenario could price him out of Baltimore with general manager Eric DeCosta already facing so many difficult roster decisions. Depending on the secondary’s overall health, veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith and rookie fifth-round pick Shaun Wade could also be safety options in certain sub packages, but the long-term key to this position group will likely be the development of Stephens, a Day 2 pick labeled as a reach by some draft pundits.
Prediction: Elliott and Clark will combine for four interceptions and 13 pass breakups with the former providing much of that playmaking improvement in his second season as a starter.