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Ravens’ track record only enhances belief in “very, very bright” future for Wiggins

The Ravens have drafted Hall of Famers and MVPs at other positions, but their first-round success at cornerback is undisputed, meaning Nate Wiggins faces lofty expectations. 

It’s not an easy position to draft either, making the first four cornerbacks taken in the first round in Ravens history that much more impressive.

The 10th overall pick in 1998, Duane Starks played the best football of his career on the playoff run to Super Bowl XXXV and intercepted 20 passes over four seasons. Baltimore’s 2002 salary cap woes led to Starks signing a lucrative deal with Arizona rather than a second contract with the Ravens

The other starting corner for that 2000 championship team, Chris McAlister was the 10th pick in 1999 and a three-time Pro Bowl selection. He ranks third on the franchise’s career interceptions list behind only Ed Reed and Ray Lewis and is arguably a top-10 player in team history.

Jimmy Smith was hampered by injuries throughout his career, but that didn’t stop the 2011 first-round choice (27th overall) from being key to the late goal-line stand in Super Bowl XLVII. Smith’s 128 games rank 18th on the franchise’s all-time list, which more than validates him as a successful first-round pick despite the unfortunate injuries that left observers wanting more. 

Marlon Humphrey, the 16th overall selection in 2017, is a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback and entering only his age-28 season after an injury-plagued 2023. He’s been a versatile standout on some of Baltimore’s best defenses not to feature Lewis or Reed. 

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“Corners have to have traits. They’ve got to have some outrageous traits,” said general manager Eric DeCosta, who’s been with the franchise since its inception. “Marlon was just a big, physical guy who ran fast. A little stiff, but a physical, tough competitor. Jimmy had freakish size and [was] just a natural athlete and could cover and run well. Chris McAlister had just unbelievable size and explosive ability to knock the ball out. I scouted Duane when he came out — it was a long time ago — but Duane, pound for pound, was one of the toughest guys and ran extremely fast. He was tough, feisty, competitive.”

So, what made Wiggins, the 30th pick in this year’s draft, worthy of being next on that list of first-round picks at cornerback? 

“I look at Nate as just [having] great feet, speed, cover ability. Guys don’t get open against him. He can just flat out cover and that’s really important,” DeCosta said. “His quality, his superpower is when he’s covering a guy, there’s going to be very little space. He’s got ball skills, he anticipates well, he can close, and he can recover. I think you want an all-around guy. You want a guy that does everything pretty well. But when you’re talking about a first-round corner, you want traits that will put them ahead of everybody else. And I think he shows that.”

Like his first-round predecessors, Wiggins appears unlikely to play every snap in Week 1 as Humphrey and Brandon Stephens enter 2024 as the projected outside starters in the base defense. Of those first four first-round cornerbacks in team history, none started games immediately and only McAlister made more than eight starts as a rookie.

The Ravens know Wiggins needs to fill out physically as he’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 182 pounds on the official roster. But the gifted Clemson product won’t turn 21 until the end of the summer, meaning there’s more than enough time for him to mature into the NFL cornerback DeCosta envisions. 

Being on the skinny side shouldn’t stop Wiggins from contributing immediately. After all, it never seemed to hurt Starks, a 5-foot-10, 172-pound corner who played in a much more physical era of the NFL than we see today. 

Baltimore’s first-round track record at cornerback speaks for itself in making you believe Wiggins is going to be a good one. 

“I saw a guy who was a competitive player. I saw a guy who wanted to be a physical player,” DeCosta said. “Getting stronger is only going to help his game, so if you love his game now, then you have to be really excited about what he could be. I think his future’s very, very bright. He’s a sponge. He’s going to want to work in the weight room.” 

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