INDIANAPOLIS — Football can feel like a card game, Maryland cornerback Jakorian Bennett said Thursday. Against some quarterbacks, a defense can show its hand and still win. Against others, well ...
“The Aaron Rodgerses and Pat Mahomeses, if they see what you’re in,” Bennett said, “they can pick you apart all game.”
The Ravens don’t want to show their hand. Under first-year coordinator Mike Macdonald last season, their defense might’ve led the NFL in misdirects, calling diverse pressure packages to rattle quarterbacks and changing up their coverage picture at the snap to confuse them.
Maybe no defensive back epitomized the Ravens’ interchangeable approach better than their youngest one. Rookie safety Kyle Hamilton blitzed from edge rusher spots, took on run blocks in the box, covered wide receivers and tight ends in the slot, and had enough bandwidth to line up as an outside cornerback and deep safety, too.
“I think what we have is moving parts,” coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “We’re not going to be a defense that’s static. Our guys are going to be playing different positions. We’re going to disguise. We’re going to blitz. …
“We’ve got some versatile pieces. Mike, [pass game coordinator and secondary coach] Chris [Hewitt] and myself, we’re kind of like, ‘We’ve got versatile guys who can help us in different kind of ways.’”
The Ravens came to the NFL scouting combine this week to look for more. With Marcus Peters’ future in Baltimore uncertain — he is a pending free agent, and salary cap space could be tight as general manager Eric DeCosta looks to keep quarterback Lamar Jackson — team officials are expected to look to the draft to help fill out an inexperienced cornerback room headlined by six-year veteran Marlon Humphrey.
This is a good year to get help. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said on a conference call last Friday that he has 20 cornerbacks rated as first-, second- or third-round prospects, “which is a big number.” The class has left an impression on Harbaugh, too.
“I’ve probably seen, in my opinion, 10 cornerbacks that could go in the first two rounds,” he said Wednesday. “It’s loaded. They’re all great players, they’re all potential starters, first-year starters. It’s a great crew.”
At the top of the group is big-time size, big-time speed, big-time personality. Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr., the son of the former Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker and occasional Ravens foil, joked that he “really never had no ill will to Baltimore. That was probably more my dad.” Maryland’s Tae Banks, a Baltimore native, said he tries to “physically impose my will on people all game.” Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez said that, as a cornerback, “you go out there on an island by yourself, and that’s what I live for.”
Friday’s on-field workouts in Indianapolis are expected to showcase a handful of corners fast enough to run with any wide receiver and big enough to bring down any tight end. But the Ravens are looking for more than just size and speed. Versatility — or at least the prospect of versatility — matters, too.
That could make South Carolina’s Cam Smith and Alabama’s Brian Branch, two potential first-round picks, especially attractive. Smith played primarily as an outside corner early in his Gamecocks career before transitioning to a part-time role last season in the slot, where he said “a lot of people don’t know the ins and outs” of the job.
Branch, meanwhile, aligned primarily in the slot for the Crimson Tide but also saw action as an edge rusher (24 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus), box defender (136), outside cornerback (14) and deep safety (25). In Alabama’s Sugar Bowl win over Kansas State, he had an interception, a sack and another tackle for loss — over the span of just a few minutes in the third quarter.
“I feel like if a team utilizes me to blitz a lot, I can blitz,” Branch said. “If a team wants me to cover their slot receiver, man coverage, I can do that. If a team utilizes me to drop into zone, I can do that as well — and also be back at safety and call the defense, be the quarterback of the defense. I feel I can do all of that.”
It’s one thing to prove that mastery in college, though. At the next level, especially for rookies, the deck can seem stacked.
“I feel like it’s more of a mental game, just with everything that’s going around,” said Miami’s Tyrique Stevenson, a potential second-round selection. “You’ve got to really dive into football. If you really love it, you’ve got to start doing everything that’s going to give you an advantage to be on top. [You] don’t have school. You don’t have a lot of things going around, so, really, just football is your life. So you’ve got to do everything that’s going to give you that advantage to still be available to be on the field.”
And even then, Rodgers and Mahomes await.