The Ravens secondary will have a new look in 2023.
How it continues taking shape in Mike Macdonald’s second season as defensive coordinator remains to be seen, but Baltimore took a significant step in filling a need last week by signing cornerback Rock Ya-Sin to a one-year deal worth up to $6 million. Head coach John Harbaugh said Ya-Sin’s addition doesn’t close the door on a Marcus Peters return — or another meaningful veteran addition in the secondary — but the odds of the three-time Pro Bowl selection returning diminished with Ya-Sin now expected to start opposite three-time Pro Bowl corner Marlon Humphrey on the outside.
The 5-foot-11, 192-pound Ya-Sin has started 38 games over his four-year career, but he’s played no more than 13 games in each of the last three seasons, only reinforcing the need for quality depth at the position.
“We’ve always appreciated the way he plays,” Harbaugh said at Saturday’s rookie minicamp. “He’s a very diligent player. He can run. He’s a good tackler. He’s a tough player — a good man and zone player both. We were impressed when we talked to him [in March] and just happy to get it done. We’re looking forward to seeing how he does.”
How the Ravens elect to approach the nickel spot remains more of a mystery with 2022 first-round pick Kyle Hamilton expected to move into a starting safety role next to Marcus Williams in the wake of the Chuck Clark trade in March. Baltimore has several unproven young corners on the depth chart to compete for playing time, and there’s always the option of moving Humphrey inside in the nickel or dime package, something they’ve done in past seasons.
But another possibility came into sharper focus over the weekend with Harbaugh revealing versatile defensive back Brandon Stephens would play more at safety ahead of his third season, the position he played as a rookie when he made 11 starts in place of the injured DeShon Elliott. Stephens played as an outside cornerback last year and made four total starts and two in place of an injured Peters late in the season.
While Stephens moving to safety could raise more concern about the outside corner depth behind Humphrey and Ya-Sin, it potentially reinforces the shift we saw last year when Baltimore deployed a safety at the nickel spot with Hamilton rather than relying on a third cornerback over the second half of the season.
“Those guys become interchangeable if they’re playing the nickel spot too,” Harbaugh said. “We probably more than anybody played a three-safety-type grouping out there in our nickel package. I would think [Stephens] could do the same type of thing.”
Regardless of whether Macdonald continues to deploy more three-safety looks over using three cornerbacks in the nickel, the Ravens still need their collection of young corners — which now includes fifth-round rookie Kyu Blu Kelly — to step forward as quality depth pieces. That particularly goes for 2022 fourth-round picks Jalyn Armour-Davis and Damarion Williams, who both received auditions to play meaningful snaps over the first half of last season before struggling or battling health concerns down the stretch.
Armour-Davis didn’t play another defensive snap after starting at New England — and struggling mightily before being benched — in Week 3 and landed on injured reserve with a hip injury in late November. Williams saw extensive action in the slot in October, but he played no more than seven defensive snaps in a game after Week 8.
Expectations haven’t wavered for those two, according to general manager Eric DeCosta.
“We drafted two young corners last year, and both guys kind of wrestled with injuries this past year,” general manager Eric DeCosta said at the conclusion of last month’s draft. “We feel the same way. If those guys were in this year’s draft, we probably would have drafted them in the same spot. They’re good, young players.”