The 2018 season for the Baltimore Ravens secondary was a successful one. Ranking in the Top 5 in both passing yards and passing touchdowns allowed, opposing offenses didn't have a ton of success in the air.
In 2019, that back portion of the defense could be even better.
Despite losing Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle during free agency, Baltimore's secondary is filled with emerging stars who have more playing time under their belt, experienced veterans, talented youngsters and a lot of depth. That combination could lead to a strong year from the last line of defense.
Expectations are high on the outside. On the inside, the feeling of something special has been recognized as well.
“I think we already know we can play at a high level, it’s already been done. So, we expect to play at that level," ninth-year cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "We have a lot of pride in that room, we have a lot of ballers and people who are striving for excellence. Our expectations are pretty high this year.”
The hype surrounding the secondary starts with the newest addition: Earl Thomas III. Signed in the offseason, the 30-year-old is one of, if not the most, physical and talented defensive backs to play the position today. A six-time Pro Bowler and three-time First-Team All-Pro, Thomas has the ability to take a talented secondary and make it even better.
While the season is still young and Thomas is just getting introduced to his new system, his impact is already being felt.
“It’s kind of a Captain Obvious question, but Earl is a great player," defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt said. "What he brings is, he’s very intense, he’s a playmaker. He’s got all the tools that you want us to take that next level.”
“He’s a ballhawk, he has instincts, just natural instincts that have already shown up on the field," Smith added.
As Hewitt also alluded to, part of where Thomas can help the most is in one of the few areas the secondary struggled in last season: turnovers. With 12 interceptions last season, Baltimore ranked 18th in the league. Not the worst, but there is room for improvement. Thomas, who had three in just four games last season, can help increase that number.
Yet take Thomas out of the picture for a second, and Baltimore's depth in the secondary is still tremendous. In addition to Smith, Tony Jefferson, Brandon Carr and Anthony Levine Sr. bring talent and veteran experience to the group. There's no forgetting Marlon Humphrey either, the third-year cornerback is coming off of a breakout campaign in 2018 and continues to improve.
That's already a talented secondary, and Anthony Averett and Tavon Young, both players who have impressed at times and have the ability to make a jump as they get more reps in the system, haven't even been mentioned yet.
Baltimore has so much to work with that some other talented players on the roster may just fall victim to the intense amount of competition.
“As far as depth is concerned, if I’m any kind of team out there right now I’d be looking at the Baltimore Ravens cause there’s going to be some good players that won’t make this team," Hewitt said of the wide array of NFL-worthy players on the secondary roster.
Besides the talent and depth, versatility is another aspect of the group. Specifically, 12-year veteran Brandon Carr fits that role for Baltimore, moving away from just being a cornerback for the team. He still spends time there but has also worked in other spots, including safety, during the early days of camp. As Hewitt describes it, Carr has become the secondary's "Swiss Army Knife".
Though a positional change late in a career can be daunting, Carr has welcomed it with open arms.
“It’s new, it’s a new challenge and at this point in my career, man, I’m just ready for whatever," Carr said. "Played a long time and I feel like this is an opportunity for me to go out there and show my versatility. Fill in wherever I’m needed, help out as much as I’m needed. So, I’m down for whatever challenge coach presents to me, I’m going to try and knock it out best I can.”
Spending time at different locations of the secondary not only allows Carr to get a better feel for the system and improve his skills, but it also allows him to get on the field. The veteran cornerback isn't really danger of not getting any playing time, but the competition is intense.
"We’re deep across the board and it’s tough to get on the field, so you got to find anyway you can to go out there get your name called making plays," Carr said. "I’m just part of one of these guys out here trying to get better each and every day, challenge myself but find a spot on the field. It’s challenging but it’s good for our secondary, good for our defense.”
A switch in where he lines up could also help Carr maintain his consecutive regular-season starts streak. At 176, he hasn't missed a regular-season game in his career and ranks second among active players. As impressive as that is, it's something that isn't really a priority. Carr wants to get on the field, but he also wants to do it in a way that is best for the team.
“I haven’t really thought about it. I’m just so consumed with just trying to be the best I can right now," Carr said of the streak. "I’m just all about trying to win games, man. I’ve been playing 12 years, trying to get a ring, trying to win a championship, trying to be the best defense best secondary one more year. That’s all my mind’s focused on right now.”
Who plays where may still be up in the air at this point in the year, but the Ravens seem to have all the pieces necessary to wreak havoc for opposing pass offenses in 2019.
With training camp just underway, the expectation are high. Rightfully so, everything looks positive for the secondary on paper. However, there's still work to be done in the coming weeks to turn the potential into results.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, it’s going to take some time for us to become a great secondary. We have all the tools to become a great secondary, but it’s Day 5 of camp and it’s hard for me to say how good we’re going to be, how bad we’re going to be," Hewitt said. "But, we got high expectations to do that this year. We’ll see what happens.”
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