Building cornerback depth ongoing process for Ravens

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Former Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome always said you could never have enough cornerbacks, especially in an increasingly pass-happy NFL.

Entering training camp in 2020, Baltimore didn’t have a deeper position group on either side of the ball, but it didn’t take long for injuries to test that depth. Before full-team practices began in mid-August, 2019 fourth-round pick Iman Marshall sustained a season-ending knee injury. A more significant blow came in Week 2 when slot cornerback Tavon Young suffered a torn ACL, his third season-ending injury in a four-year period. His absence pushed veteran Jimmy Smith — who had prepared for a hybrid safety role — back into the No. 3 corner spot and prompted defensive coordinator Wink Martindale to use less of the dime package that was so successful in recent years.

Four other reserve cornerbacks spent time on injured reserve while Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey missed a game due to a COVID-19 infection, fellow starter Marcus Peters sat out two games with a calf injury in December, and Smith – filling a bigger role than anticipated — missed five full games and significant portions of two others. At different points in the final month of the regular season, injuries forced the Ravens to play special-teams captain Anthony Levine at the nickel – a spot he hadn’t played in years — and to use the trio of Anthony Averett, Tramon Williams, and Pierre Desir for a few plays against the New York Giants in Week 16. Williams and Desir weren’t even with the organization as of early November, illustrating how strained the position was over the course of the season.

Despite those injury challenges, Baltimore still finished sixth in the NFL in passing yards per game allowed and 10th in Football Outsiders’ pass defense efficiency metric, a testament to the defensive coaching staff as well as the pro scouting department for finding reinforcements.

“We had a bunch of guys go down at different points in the season,” general manager Eric DeCosta said last month. “We played with a lot of different combinations, and we were able to survive and really flourish in many ways back there despite the different personnel packages and people playing.”

The Ravens re-signing Davontae Harris on Thursday was the latest example of their commitment to building depth at cornerback. The 2018 fifth-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals appeared in four games for Baltimore last season before going on IR and has made eight starts and played in 30 games over his three-year career, but he currently stands no better than sixth on the offseason depth chart behind Humphrey, Peters, Young, Smith, and Averett. Other cornerbacks under contract for 2021 include Marshall, Khalil Dorsey, and Chris Westry, leaving Baltimore with nine cornerbacks who have NFL game experience.

But are the Ravens truly set at the position when much of the depth on which they’re counting hasn’t exactly proven dependable in recent years?

Young, 26, agreed to a $2.85 million pay cut that reduced his 2021 salary cup number to just under $6 million last fall, but he has played only one full game since signing a lucrative contract extension two years ago and has appeared in just 17 of 64 regular-season games over the last four seasons. Meanwhile, Smith was extended another year in late December after performing at an above-average level in 2020, but his body broke down over the second half of the season and the 32-year-old hasn’t played more than 12 games in a campaign since 2015, a trend unlikely to subside at this stage.

Averett played a career-high 354 defensive snaps and was graded 52nd among qualified cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus in 2020, but the former fourth-round pick from Alabama will be an unrestricted free agent next offseason and has dealt with his own injuries and inconsistency at different points, playing no more than 11 games in any of his three seasons. Marshall, also a former fourth-round pick, has appeared in only three games in his first two professional seasons.

In other words, the current depth chart probably shouldn’t preclude DeCosta from drafting a cornerback if an attractive option is available on Day 2 or in the early rounds of Day 3 this spring. That’s especially true for slot cornerback after Humphrey was forced to move inside after Young’s injuries in each of the last two seasons. Last year was the first time the Ravens didn’t draft a cornerback since 2014.

With Peters and Humphrey currently carrying two of the five highest cap figures on the 2021 roster, the Ravens clearly value their multi-time Pro Bowl starters as well as having no shortage of options behind them at one of the NFL’s premium positions

“We do love our depth in the secondary. We love where we are right now,” DeCosta said. “And what we learned this year again is you can never have enough corners. We say it every year, but this year was a great example.”