Corey Graham seizes opportunity Ravens placed in front of him

Corey Graham intercepted Peyton Manning twice in January's 38-35 double overtime win over the Broncos. - Jeff Gross

Corey Graham was just a special teams player in Chicago. Now in his second season with the Ravens, he's a starting cornerback.

Corey Graham came to Baltimore to play defense.

During his first five NFL seasons, Graham never thought he was given the opportunity he deserved in Chicago. With the Bears, he was a special teams player that couldn't shake a limitation placed on him by a coaching staff.

In the past, Graham has stated he could intercept multiple passes in Bears practices, when Lovie Smith was at the helm, and he still couldn't crack the two-deep. He was a special teams ace first, foremost and always. Nothing more.

When he had the opportunity to test free agency during the 2012 offseason, Graham did so to find a team that would at least give him a shot at cornerback. After speaking with the Ravens, he was told he'd have every chance to work his way in onto the defense. It wouldn't be easy given the depth in the secondary. So he plugged away and quietly put in a a strong camp. However, he entered the 2012 season fourth on the depth chart at cornerback.

As fate would have it, he wouldn't stay buried there too long.

Six weeks into the season Lardarius Webb tore his ACL and would miss most of the 2012 season. Shortly after, Jimmy Smith needed a sports hernia surgery.

Just like that, Graham was the No. 2 corner with Cary Williams on the other side. His time had arrived and it was time to make the most of it.

Graham exceeded expectations and wound up ending the year a starter in Baltimore's secondary, even after Smith recovered from surgery. His play down the stretch earned him a starting corner job.

Those in Baltimore were impressed with Graham's cover skills and ability to make plays on the ball. But he was not yet known on a national level.

Then came the Denver game in the divisional round of the playoffs. It was Graham's finest moment as an NFL cornerback

In the first quarter, with the game tied at 7-7, Peyton Manning attempted a pass to Eric Decker in tight coverage. The ball bounced off Decker and into Graham's hands, who then ran the ball 39 yards the opposite way to put Baltimore up 14-7.

Graham would come up big again in overtime, picking off Manning a second time to help set up kicker Justin Tucker's game-winner. That game placed Graham in the national spotlight, a place he'd been vying to be in for some time.

"Whenever you go into a situation like that, the key is winning," Graham said. "But when you go out there, make a few plays and help your team win the game, it means a lot. That's what I wanted when I came here, to get an opportunity to play on defense, to go out there and have a big game like that against an opponent like that."

Graham carried that momentum and helped Baltimore reel off two more wins, giving the Ravens a Super Bowl XLVII championship. Facing strong competition from Smith this preseason, Graham was able to keep his starting spot with consistency and sound play, even though both will see plenty of playing time in the passing league the NFL has become.

Webb noted that Graham surprised him throughout the time he's been in Baltimore, considering the reputation he had has just a special teams player with the Bears.

"Ever since he came in for training camp from Chicago, we all were thinking, ‘Hey, we've got a special teams corner,'" Webb said. "That's what we got him for. Once he got here, he started picking balls off and making plays. We [were saying], ‘Ozzie [Newsome] got him [a cornerback].' I don't know where Ozzie found this guy, but he found himself a great corner."

After one season in Baltimore, Graham has elevated his game from special teams standout to starting cornerback. The next step is to find out what the other teams in the NFL think about him.

That starts tonight, when he takes on a Broncos team he helped put away in the playoffs this past January.

"I don't know exactly what other teams think. We'll see," Graham said. "If they're throwing the ball at me every time then obviously nothing's changed. The good thing about it is if they're throwing the ball at you every play - if they throw at you five times you should at least make one of those plays. If they keep testing you, you should hurt them then."

Follow me on twitter: @JasonHButt

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