Going into last season, most of the fan base was concerned about the cornerback position. Not because we had any issues with the Ravens' starters, but because of a lack of depth. When Corey Graham left for his hometown, Buffalo, the team decided to make do with Chykie Brown, Asa Jackson and veteran signee's like Aaron Ross and Dominique Franks behind starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb.
There were two big concerns with last year's group: Firstly, will anyone step up and take the the nickelback job. Secondly, what happens if one of the starters gets injured, since both had extensive injury histories.
The second concern came to the forefront before the season even began. Webb battled back issues which kept him out the entire preseason, and that carried into the season. The answer to the first concern, unfortunately compounded the issue early in the season. An additional issue came to bear early in the season: a serious regression from Matt Elam, leading to very weak safety play. His partner, Darian Stewart was supposed to be the weak link in the secondary, but as the first several weeks passed, he was the most consistent player besides Jimmy Smith. The secondary was weak enough that the coordinators were using safeties in the nickel. This did not bode well for the team, but the defense was overcoming it, winning games, and ranked at the top of the league in red zone defense.
But then the dagger came. The Ravens most irreplaceable player outside of Joe Flacco, CB Jimmy Smith, went down for the season. Webb was not back to full strength yet, and Will Hill was just gaining his bearings. Tough losses followed to the rival Steelers and Bengals as the team tried to find someone, anyone who could hold their own. Chykie Brown and Dominique Franks were cut in favor of Danny Gorrer and 2 players the team signed off other team's practice squads, Rashaan Melvin and Chris Greenwood. The team used Gorrer right away though, along with converted safety Anthony Levine. Then Gorrer also was bitten by the injury bug, and after several weeks of riding the pine, Melvin finally got on the field. His play for those last few games exceeded expectations, albeit against several mediocre quarterbacks. In the playoffs, Melvin performed well against Big Ben and the Steelers, before having a rough day against one of the best ,Tom Brady.
Fast forward to 2015. The Raven spent a 4th rounder on a raw prospect, Tray Walker who is not expected to contribute much this year. Jimmy Smith, the new owner of a 4 year extension, is rehabbing and it is reportedly going well. Lardarius Webb, who improved as the 2014 season progressed, is back, having left money on the table to remain a Raven. This show of loyalty is rare in the NFL, a league without guaranteed contracts. And Rashaan Melvin is back, ready to fight to move up the depth chart. Asa Jackson, also a favorite to return punts, is expected back, at least for training camp.
But the team did not stand pat. After missing out on some early targets like Tramon Williams, Perrish Cox, and Cary Williams, the team waited out the market instead of overpaying. When slot CB extraordinaire and native Baltimorian Kyle Arrington was released by the Patriots on May 11, the Ravens pounced. Arrington is a very good slot corner, but he has trouble on the outside. He also can serve as a gunner on special teams. There is no doubt he is an upgrade at corner, but you hope to only use him inside. The Ravens further bolstered their depth with the signing of 5 year veteran Cassius Vaughn later that month, who played for former Ravens coaches Jim Caldwell and Teryl Austin in Detroit last season. Vaughn is not guaranteed a spot on the roster, and is battling with Asa Jackson, Tramain Jacob, and Chris Greenwood for a spot on the depth chart.
At safety, the Ravens struck as soon as the top tier free agents were off the board, signing free safety Kendrick Lewis from the Houston Texans. Lewis is known for his ability to play deep safety, and forcing turnovers, 2 things last years Ravens lacked. The rest of the players at the position remained the same, with the exception of Darian Stewart who followed Gary Kubiak to Denver. Will Hill is back, hoping to play the whole season for the first time as a Raven. First round disappointment Matt Elam, who was a major factor in last years secondary issues, has looked good in camp thus far. Terrance Brooks is working back from a knee injury he suffered last year, and he may or may not be ready for week 1. Bryden Trawick and Anthony Levine were resigned for depth and special teams ability, while Jeromy Miles is still a free agent.
All this leaves the question: Are we more prepared this year in the unfortunate event of an injury than last?
The safety group looks to be upgraded, so that is one issue which should improve. But without Jimmy or Webb, our success would seem to hinge on Melvin's abilities. Arrington's inability to play outside is not ideal, but even having him in the slot with Melvin on the outside is a large upgrade over last year. Vaughn is not a starter by any means, although he started 5 games for the Lions last year. But he is better than much of what was available in the bargain bin stage of free agency last year. He is better than Chykie Brown in my opinion too.
So it would seem that we are more prepared this year. We might not have drafted the stud cornerback in the top 2 rounds who we all would have liked, to be the heir apparent of Webb. I have faith in Melvin, and am happy he will have an opportunity to grow this year and show us what he is made of as the #1 backup at outside cornerback. He will also get a full training camp with the team, which is huge for a guy who joined the team mid-season.
I am excited, and think this may be the deepest cornerback group we have seen in Baltimore. Time will tell, but I think that Ozzie worked his magic once again.