A lot of the focus on the Baltimore Ravens over the past few weeks has been on their offensive deficiencies following their latest premature postseason. Their defense played well for the vast majority of the regular season and was dominant in the playoff once they got nearly to full strength.
However, as stout as their defense was in 2020 and as elite as their secondary is — with the dominant cornerback tandem of Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey and the ascending safety duo of Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott — there is still room for improvement and fortification.
While every member of the starting defensive backfield is slated to return and be fully intact at the start of the 2021 season, two key role positions could and should be addressed in the coming months.
The loss of Earl Thomas was brilliantly filled by Elliott but the subtraction of the third-year pro as the No. 3 safety in sub-packages was noticeable and at times glaring.
The Ravens tried a handful of different solutions including using veteran Jimmy Smith, signing veteran Marcus Gilchrist off the street for two games, and using inside linebacker Chris Board as proxy safety — but ultimately failed to effectively fill the role.
For the second straight year and third time in his career, Ravens star nickel CB Tavon Young suffered a season ending injury and wasn’t able to finish the season.
When healthy, Young is arguably the best slot corner in the entire league and a tremendous asset to DC Don ‘Wink’ Martindale but he has only played a full 16 game season once in his career, which was as a rookie in 2016. His inability to consistently stay on the field has handicapped the defense to a degree because it has meant that Humphrey has had to split time in the slot and on the outside, which is where he is at his best.
While the two-time Pro Bowler has impressively been able to play both nickel and perimeter corner at an elite for the last two years, perhaps it is time for GM Eric DeCosta to look for and invest in a suitable backup for Young in the slot so that in the event that he is lost for the year again — knock on wood — that it doesn’t force Humphrey or anyone else to play out of position.
Teams are rarely willing to part ways with such key role players unless they absolutely have to for cap related reasons and because they’re usually inexpensive so I will not include trade possibilities and just focus on the potential free agent and draft prospect options.
Free agency —
At safety, eighth-year veteran Duron Harmon would be an ideal fit for the Ravens in their third safety role. He performed those exact same duties for the New England Patriots for the first seven years of his career before signing a one-year deal with the Detroit Lions last offseason.
Harmon got his first chance to be a starter on a porous Detroit defense that surrendered the most rushing touchdowns, passing touchdowns, and the most combined yards in the league in 2020. Even though his unit and defense struggled as a whole, Harmon put up decent individual numbers with a career-high 73 tackles, two interceptions, five pass deflections, and a quarterback hit in 16 regular season starts.
Many Ravens fans will not so fondly remember Harmon for the part he played in ending the team’s 2014 playoff run where he hauled in a late game-sealing interception from former franchise QB Joe Flacco.
Including the playoffs, he has 23 career interceptions and has picked off at least one pass every year he’s been in the league and has six seasons of two or more which includes each of the last four.
After getting a taste of starter status, Harmon might not be willing to slide back into a reduced role with the Ravens but their coaching staff can be very convincing when making sales pitches to veterans they believe would be great schematic and organizational fits.
A pair of experienced nickel corners that could be looking for new homes in 2021 are fifth-year pros Mackensie Alexander and Brian Poole. Both players have played at a high level in the slot and Poole even brings some safety experience to the table.
Alexander spent the first four years of his career with the Vikings and was with the Bengals in 2020. He hasn’t been utilized in the same aggressive fashion as the Ravens like to use cornerbacks in the slot but he’s more than capable of playing the part.
Poole has played both nickelback and safety at a high level in the pros throughout his career with the Falcons and Jets and is exactly the kind of versatile veteran defensive back that would fill an under the radar need.
The Ravens were reportedly interested in trading for him at the midseason trade deadline so he’s been a player that they’ve had their eye on for some time and could be a primary target once he hits the open market if he isn’t retained by the Jets.
Before he landed on injured reserve in November after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery, Poole recorded 44 total tackles including two for loss, two interceptions, seven pass deflections, two quarterback hits, and a sack in nine games.
Some pundits and draft analysts have mocked some of the top safety prospects like TCU’s Trevon Moehrig to the Ravens in the first round but they could find a prospect or two to fill either or both roles on day two or three.
One player that could perform both duties at a high level is former UCF S Richie Grant who is a natural safety but is capable of playing a hybrid nickel role. There aren’t too many rangy center fielders and true ballhawks at safety that come out in the draft each year because they are so rare to find but Grant is one of the select few.
He recorded nine interceptions in his final three years in college including a career-high six as a sophomore in 2018 and three in a nine-game COVID condensed season.
The Ravens value versatility in all their players but especially among their defensive backs and linebackers. They got a good look at Grant at the 2021 Reese’ Senior bowl, where he was always around the ball and got his hands it quite a few times for interceptions.
Another defensive back that stood out down in Mobile both in practice and in the game was Pittsburgh S Damar Hamlin. He was known more for his big hits and played a lot in the box in college but he showed off his range and ball skills by corralling a tipped ball for an interception while keeping both feet in bounds on the boundary.
As far as a player that predominantly played corner in college and could learn to play safety in sub-packages at the next level, Ohio State’s Shaun Wade comes to mind. The former five-star recruit’s gamble to come back to school and improve his 2021 draft stock by being the Buckeye’s top outside cornerback after starring in the nickel role in 2019 failed.
His stock has plummeted after a lackluster senior campaign albeit in an abbreviated COVID-19 condensed season that ended with him having his worst career outing in the National title game against DeVonta Smith and the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Wade was targeted relentlessly in coverage and the Heisman Trophy and Biletnikoff, Maxwell, and Walter Camp Award winner racked up 215 receiving yards on 12 catches in the first half before a hand injury caused him to miss the second half but by then the damage had already be done. Once viewed as a lock to be selected in the first two rounds of this year’s draft, Wade will now be lucky to hear his name called on day two.
While it’s an unfortunate development for such a promising young player, he would be one hell of a steal for the Ravens in the fourth round — which is where he is currently projected to go now with no scouting combine this year due to COVID.