Daniel Jeremiah, former scout with the Ravens, often recalls that the Ravens' have long possessed an obsession with cornerbacks, noting that GM Ozzie Newsome is fond of saying "You can never have too many corners". Newsome was ahead of his fellow GM's in realizing the shift in the game from one focused on a single, stud running back to one composed of a multi-pronged passing attack.
If you ever wanted proof of that concept, you did not need to watch much of the Ravens game versus the Cowboys on Saturday. At the moment, the Ravens are precariously thin at this immensely important position and even a mere chest bruise or back injury to their top corners is of critical importance to the season.
First though we should understand some things. No team can survive the loss of a star player and hope to suffer no degradation. Depth is great even though you never want to need it, but to some extent, it can only do so much. You can't plug and play replacements in for top talent. But you need to have enough to survive while hoping for the cast around them to raise their game.
We need only look at 2012 to be reminded of that. After over 12 straight years of finishing no worse than sixth on defense, the Ravens dropped to 19th in defensive metrics. We know why that happened: the team lost its two best players on defense in Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb for significant time and had numerous others down or otherwise degraded.
Webb's loss was especially devastating. Football Outsiders had Webb's charting statistics in pass defense through six games at far above an elite level. His Success Rate1 was 76% through six games and his adjusted yards per pass attempt2 was 3.7.
What do those stats mean? It means Webb prevented his opponent from achieving necessary yards on three out of four of the passes sent his way and that these passes averaged a paltry 3.7 yards.
Just how good was that? The defensive back who finished #1 in success rate in 2012 was Casey Heyward of Green Bay. His success rate was 67%. The defensive back who finished #1 in Adjusted Yards per Pass finished at 4.4. While it's unlikely Webb would have sustained his play as "best cornerback in the NFL" for all 16 games, let's just say he was on his way to an All-Pro season until the injury.
The Ravens won the Super Bowl that year in spite of those losses. A lot went into that but suffice to say, one major reason was Newsome's cornerback acquisitions leading up to that point. Cary Williams, for instance, was a seventh round draft pick cast off from Tennessee. While statistically he was not great in 2012, and was thrown at relentlessly as indicated by 93 targets against him, he was still a reliable #2 caliber corner with 17 pass deflections, four picks, and solid run defense metrics. That's solid return on investment for picking up a seventh rounder off the waiver wire.
Where the Ravens really pulled the coup de grâce on the NFL Free Agent market was in their acquisition of Corey Graham. Signed from Chicago for $2 million per year, Graham was given far more than most special teamers yet that is partially because only Baltimore recognized his upside as a defensive back.
Graham was exceptional in 2012. Football Outsiders' 2013 Almanac had him with a success rate of 62%, good for sixth in the NFL. His Adjusted Yards per Pass was 5.6, good for fourth in the NFL. He was exceptional in the playoffs. His play made Cary Williams largely expendable to some extent.
Graham also played the slot, a position many football experts agree is one of the most difficult on the field. Slot corners do not have the benefit of the sideline as an extra defender, must balance the challenge of knowing when to pass off receivers to other defenders in and out of their zone (think crossing routes against zone coverage), serve as capable blitzers, and they must be very active in run defense. Webb's loss hurt doubly so because of how dominant he is in the slot, but Graham did a very admirable job in his stead.
However, Graham was the unexpected loss in the Ravens 2014 offseason. As Kevin Byrne noted, Buffalo paid a premium (4 years/$16 million) to take Graham back to his hometown even though Newsome believed they thought they would keep him after making him an offer. Graham was not as good in 2013 as he was in 2012, however, he did chart better than Webb, who in all fairness was still not quite recovered from his ACL.
All this is a long-winded way of saying that the losses of Graham and Williams were not devastating but they were not inconsequential either. Now, the Ravens find themselves in a familiar position: needing at least one more corner. Except this time, it's not merely a cliché but an all too vexing reality.
Tony Romo and Dez Bryant are an unfair matchup for any second stringer, such as Dominique Franks, but it just so happens in the NFL that there are lots of good quarterbacks and receivers. One can count on facing productive passing attacks nearly every week in this league - and if you have a weakness in the secondary, you can count on it being found and exploited. Thus goes the axiom that one needs three starting cornerbacks in the NFL.
One way or another, we will find out what we have soon.
1: Success Rate is defined as preventing the opposing offense from gaining 45% of needed yards on 1st down, 60% of needed yards on 2nd down, and 100% of needed yards on 3rd down. In other words, if you force the opposing offense into 2nd and 7's or worse, 3rd and 5's or worse, and prevent third down conversions, it is a defensive success on the play (source: Football Outsiders)
2: Adjusted Yards Per Pass Attempt is defined as the average number of yards gained on plays on which this defender was the listed target, adjusted for the quality of the receiver covered (source: Football Outsiders)