While the title of best secondary in the league is debatable in eyes of some, the Baltimore Ravens defensive backfield is by far the deepest and most diverse. Perhaps no player on the roster exemplifies that more than rookie defensive back Brandon Stephens, third-round pick out of SMU.
The former Mustang is listed as the second-string free safety on the official team depth chart produced by the public relations staff. However, he will be lining up all over field and will be utilized in a multitude of different ways in Defensive Coordinator Don 'Wink' Martindale's scheme.
"His skill set and what he offers this roster, it’s awesome," Martindale said. "He’s just another one of those things . . . like I told you, the defenses turn it into NBA matchup-style play, and he’s one of those chess pieces that you love to have.”
Stephens hasn't been playing defensive back or defense in general very long. He is a converted running back that made the switch when he transferred from UCLA to SMU.
"I just had that feeling that this would be my best opportunity to get to the League, get to the NFL," Stephens said. "I felt like that was where I could contribute to a team the best. So, that's kind of what inspired my thought process to switch positions."
He credits some of his success at cornerback in college to his time at running back where he had to learn how to run routes and understand the concepts behind them.
"Back when I was at UCLA, my running backs coach would have us learn the route concepts that the receivers would run," Stephens said. "That definitely has helped me with the transition to defense."
Even though his roster spot was never really in jeopardy taking into account where he got drafted, Stephens still considers himself truly blessed to be on the final roster.
"Just to be here and just to be included on the 53 [-man roster], it's a dream come true for me and my family," said Stephens. So, I'm just excited for the season, excited for Week One of the season and getting started."
Martindale liked what he saw from the rookie in training camp and the preseason and believes communication will be key in his continual growth.
"That’s the biggest thing," said Martindale. "I always bring up to you guys – with all the rookies, but Brandon [Stephens] is a quiet guy, and if you’ve had a chance to talk to him yet, you know what I’m talking about."
Stephens agreed with his coach's assessment and admitted that 'overcommunicating' was one of the biggest challenges during his transition to playing safety at the professional level.
"That's something that I didn't really do in college being at corner," Stephens said. "I'm just trying to overcommunicate to the guys on the field, so that's definitely one thing that I'm progressing with every single day."
The preseason is typically a period where teams like to avoid tipping their hand to future opponents about how their offenses and/or defenses will operate or how they intend to use certain players. However, the writing is on the wall for how the Ravens intend to use Stephens based on where he lined up in their exhibition games.
He took snaps at both corner and safety, played in the box, roamed the deep middle of the field and even lined up in the slot a fair amount of time.
Snaps in the slot this preseason:— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) August 26, 2021
Brandon Stephens: 36
Ar’Darius Washington: 25
Anthony Averett: 13
Shaun Wade: 2
Stephens prides himself on versatility and was glad that he had the preseason to showcase skillet. Last year's rookie draft class didn't get their first taste of live NFL action until the regular season opener after the pandemic caused the cancellation of their exhibition season and in person off-season program.
"I've always been confident in my skillset and what I bring to the table," Stephens said. "All I need is an opportunity, and I'm sure I'll get that at some point during the season. So, once I get it, I just have to get it and run with it."
"I feel comfortable at each spot that Coach 'Wink' [defensive coordinator Don Martindale] puts me in. Whether that's nickel, safety [or] corner, I'm just trying to prove my versatility every day. A lot of our coaches trust that I can get the job done at any place."
The Ravens have arguably the top cornerback tandem in the league with Pro Bowlers Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters. They also have one of the most underrated yet dynamic safety duos with Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott. Stephens is constantly picking their brains to learn tricks of the trade and discover new ways to elevate his play.
"I try to stay in their ear all the time, each and every day," Stephens said. "They tell me something new every day that I would never think about. Just being with a great group of guys [in] the 'DB' [defensive backs] room that we have, it's only going to make each and every one of us better."
Stephens believes his landing in Baltimore was preordained and that the Ravens present him with the best opportunity to both succeed and display his full array of talents.
"I feel like God put me here for a reason," said Stephens. "This is where I was supposed to be. Being picked [No.] 104 overall, that's where I was supposed to be picked. So, I feel like this is the best place for me. It fits my skillset, and I'm just around a great group of guys – both offense and defense. The guys, we just get along. It's one big family."