One of Eric DeCosta’s earliest moves as Ravens general manager was making Tavon Young the NFL’s highest-paid nickel cornerback just 27 months ago.
Though the three-year, $25.8 million extension through the 2022 season surprised many, Young had bounced back from a serious knee injury to become one of the better slot corners in the league in 2018 and was viewed by the organization as an ascending player who would continue to get better at age 25. Unfortunately, the 2016 fourth-round pick from Temple has played just one full game since receiving that lucrative contract, missing the entire 2019 campaign with a neck injury suffered in training camp and sustaining a torn ACL early in the Week 2 win at Houston last September.
The deep Baltimore secondary has managed fine with two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey moving to the nickel spot in each of the last two seasons, but that doesn’t mean defensive coordinator Wink Martindale isn’t itching to have the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Young back on the field. And the organization is hoping to salvage some value from a contract that hasn’t worked out how anyone anticipated.
“I know he hasn’t gotten the go-ahead to go full speed yet,” Martindale said in a call with Ravens season-ticket holders earlier this week. “I do expect him to come back fully healthy for training camp for sure, but maybe sooner I’m hoping. He looks great. He’s going through some of the toughest things you can do as an athlete with the freak injuries that he’s had the last two years.
“There’s nothing worse for a player to sit there and rehab an injury and not play the game that he works so hard for to play.”
Young has much to prove after agreeing to a $2.85 million pay cut last fall that gave the Ravens more salary cap flexibility and increased the likelihood of him remaining on the 2021 roster after essentially missing three of the last four seasons due to injury. Even with that adjustment, Young still carries the Ravens’ sixth-highest cap number ($5.988 million) for 2021 and is scheduled to make $5.845 million in base salary next season, leaving his long-term future in question. DeCosta also selected former Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade in the fifth round of this year’s draft to add more depth at the nickel spot should Young not return to form after his second serious knee injury in four years.
Those who remember how he played before the injuries began to mount know what kind of asset Young can be for a top-shelf defense as he owns three interceptions, 13 pass breakups, two sacks, two defensive touchdowns, and 92 tackles in 33 career games. Whether he will be the same player remains to be seen.
“He’s worked way too hard not to have any success. I’m just telling you that now,” Martindale said. “I can’t wait for him to come back.”
Rookie Oweh “checks so many boxes”
His physical traits and the fact that he recorded no sacks for Penn State last season have prompted many to label first-round outside linebacker Odafe Oweh a boom-or-bust prospect, but the Ravens don’t feel that way.
Martindale says he’s already seen Oweh doing things in practice “better than what our veterans can do,” which aligns with Pro Football Focus grading him as one of the best run defenders in college football in 2020. His ability to effectively set the edge would already give him a higher floor than many prospects who enter the NFL as situational rushers hoping their pass-rushing moves translate against better competition.
“When you’re evaluating a player, you look at all the great things he does,” Martindale said. “He checks so many boxes. How he plays against the run on first and second down was better than any outside backer I’ve seen in a long time.”
Of course, the Ravens are expecting more than just good run defense from the 31st overall pick, but that’s where Oweh’s upside comes into play with Martindale pointing to sacks as “one of the most superficial rankings” in evaluating the individual contributions of a front-seven player. The coordinator noted how many variables go into a quarterback takedown, especially in a blitz-heavy scheme that has created no shortage of unblocked opportunities for the likes of Matthew Judon in the past.
And Martindale still expects the sacks to come for Oweh.
“I guarantee he’s going to be on the quarterback,” Martindale said. “He’s going to hit the quarterback, so don’t worry about that.”
Jersey number backlash
Inside linebacker Patrick Queen and wide receiver Marquise Brown became the first notable Ravens to take advantage of the NFL relaxing jersey number rules with Queen switching to No. 6 and Brown to No. 5 this week.
Queen was never going to receive any pushback with kicker Stephen Hauschka being the most notable former Raven to don No. 6, but Brown taking the old jersey number of Super Bowl XLVII MVP and former longtime quarterback Joe Flacco predictably raised some eyebrows within the fan base. It also reinforced the unofficial stance the Ravens have taken without actually retiring any jersey numbers in their 25-year history.
No Ravens player has worn the jersey numbers of Pro Football Hall of Famers Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, or Ed Reed, and the organization has yet to reissue Terrell Suggs’ No. 55 or Marshal Yanda’s No. 73 with those two perceived by many as future Hall inductees. The organization also hasn’t issued No. 19 — a quiet nod to Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas — since 1999 when ex-Ravens quarterback Scott Mitchell was such a disappointment.
In contrast, Baltimore reissued the old numbers of other notable Ring of Honor members such as Jamal Lewis, Todd Heap, Peter Boulware, and Haloti Ngata only a year or two after their respective exits. That makes the Ravens’ decision to give Brown No. 5 — the jersey he wore at Oklahoma — acceptable two years after Flacco was traded away.
With his new number comes January pressure, however, something the 23-year-old Brown has met to this point in his young career with 18 receptions for 322 yards in three playoff games.
In the end, football rosters are large with only so many jersey numbers to go around over time. The Ravens unofficially drawing the line at Hall of Famers is perfectly reasonable even if Flacco’s historic 2012 Super Bowl run puts him in a special place among the greatest Ravens not to make the cut for Canton.