Late in the draft, if not sooner, the Baltimore Ravens should look to address needs in the secondary. At cornerback, Lardarius Webb, who is only 25, has developed into a solid player with a promising future. Webb is a restricted free agent this year, and, although the Ravens aren’t in dire jeopardy of losing him, they probably will look to lock him up with a multiyear deal.
The other starting cornerback spot could come down to a training camp battle between veteran Cary Williams, who is serviceable, and 2011 first round pick Jimmy Smith, a big, physical corner, whom the team would like to, through marked development and increased consistency, wrestle the position away from Williams. Baltimore may look to bolster the cornerback position with the addition of a mid-level free agent. But don’t look for the club to use a valuable draft pick to improve this area.
The same cannot be said for the safety position, where eventually the Ravens will have to replace the, seemingly ageless, Ed Reed. There is an attractive cadre of veteran safeties, who could potentially hit the free agent market this offseason, including Dashon Goldston, Tyvon Branch, Michael Griffin, and LaRon Landry. However, each of these players is likely to command a premium salary. This financial challenge coupled with current players on the roster such as Haruki Nakamura, Emmanuel Cook, and Tom Zbikowski – all more suited to back-up and special team roles, may influence the Ravens to strongly consider drafting a safety with an early round pick. That said, this year’s crop of free safeties is one of the weakest areas of the 2012 draft.
Arguably, the only free safety worth an early round selection is Oklahoma State’s Markelle Martin, who, more than likely, won’t be selected before the second round. Martin (6’1” 198) is a natural athlete, with a lean frame, large wingspan, and above average balance and body control. He flashes an explosive first step and noticeable burst both when attacking the line of scrimmage, and when breaking on the ball in the defensive backfield. In coverage, Martin showcases a smooth, compact backpedal and balanced footwork, though, repeatedly, he gets too high while moving backwards, which causes him to be slow to change direction laterally when required to transition out of breaks.
When asked to open his hips and run with the receiver, he does so seamlessly, and is able to mirror the opponent at all levels of the field. However, he often bails out of his backpedal prematurely, relying solely on his raw athleticism. Although this tactic proved effective at Oklahoma State, athletic ability will need to be coupled with sound technique to succeed versus NFL caliber receivers.
Martin plays with a sound understanding of defensive concepts and natural instincts in the passing game, able to diagnose route combinations and anticipate where receivers will be. He possesses good ball skills and excellent range, with the ability to accelerate quickly and close on the pass catcher or ball carrier. Versus the run, Martin looks comfortable at the line of scrimmage, either as an attacking “in the box” defender, or as a blitzer off the edge, though at times his aggressiveness causes him to overrun plays or take poor angles to the ball. As a tackler, he habitually goes for the big hit, and can deliver a significant blow yet often the attempted knock-out shot results in just a glancing blow, with Martin neglecting to wrap-up, a characteristic too often seen, especially in the open field. In the end, with his athleticism, aggression, and feel for the game, there is a lot to like about Martin as a free safety prospect, but he is far from a finished product.
Other safeties, who flash potential, but have limitations to their game include LSU’s Brandon Taylor (6’1” 195), Michigan State’s Trenton Robinson (5’10” 195), and Aaron Henry (6’0” 210) out of Wisconsin. All three defensive backs, who are not only schematically limited, but also not potential impact players at the next level, should hear their names called on draft day between rounds three and six.
Both Taylor and Henry are former cornerbacks, with good man cover skills for safety prospects. Henry has good size and strength, and will be physical with receivers, but the physicality does not transfer to the running game, where he shows limited potential as a tackler. Dropping back, and in coverage, he’s technically sound, though he displays a noticeable lack of athleticism. Also, in zone coverages, he doesn’t have an innate feel, and struggles when asked to react as a deep centerfielder. Like Henry, Brandon Taylor displays good cover ability for a safety however, Taylor isn’t as technically proficient, relying instead on athleticism, though he’s not nearly as talented an athlete as Markelle Martin. Taylor possesses solid ball skills, and is a serviceable tackler, who is not afraid to stick his nose into the fray, but, in space, he has limited range, and isn’t a fast closer on the ball.
Michigan State’s Trenton Robinson is a better than average tackler, with some pop, who typically takes good angles, and, overall, is solid in run support, both at the line of scrimmage and in space. In zone coverage, he reacts well to crossing and underneath routes, though he never flashes a real burst when closing on receivers. He struggles in man coverage, not only against wide receivers, but also versus running backs and tight ends as well, especially when forced to play in space, where he has limited range and less than ideal sideline to sideline pursuit capabilities. Overall, each of these safeties has notable limitations to his game.
In most years, these players would be fifth or sixth round picks but given the dearth of talent at the position this year, Henry, Taylor, and Robinson all could be selected as early as round three, though none would justify a selection here for Baltimore.
If the Ravens are looking to maximize value, while adding a promising free safety prospect, they could turn their attention late in the draft to South Carolina State’s Christian Thompson (6’0” 213) or the University of Virginia’s Rodney McLoed (5’11” 180). Each of these players is raw and unpolished, but both have enough talent and upside to warrant a pick here. Thompson is a big, strong, athletic safety, who moves well for his size, displaying both quickness and straight ahead speed. He doesn’t possess good lateral change of direction ability, but can open his hips and run with receivers, and is a good enough athlete to stick with the player he’s covering. Thompson is aggressive and physical versus the run, though he will overrun plays at times. At this point in his development, he doesn’t read and react well in coverage, or locate the ball quickly but mix in good coaching and those skills can improve. Thompson, who has significant upside, is definitely a player to watch, and one whom the Ravens should keep their eyes on.
Like Thompson, Rodney McLoed, from Virginia, has shown flashes of impressive play throughout his collegiate career, but McLoed, who is undersized, lacks Thompson’s raw athletic ability. He played both cornerback and strong safety at Virginia, though his skill set makes him a more attractive free safety prospect for the NFL. McLoed is proficient at both press and off-man coverages, displaying a balanced and fluid drop, coupled with the ability to come out of breaks without having to gear down. He doesn’t showcase plus speed or burst, and has difficulty closing the gap on receivers if they gain separation, but he anticipates well, and is generally in good position to make the play.
As a centerfield safety, he breaks well on the ball, exhibiting the talent to break up the pass or come down with the interception. Versus both the run and pass, McLoed is a bigger hitter than his size would suggest, and his coaches have repeatedly called him the “best tackler on the team,” which is impressive considering that his Virginia teammates, Cam Johnson and Matt Conrath both should be early to mid-round picks, come April.
One knock on McLoed has been that his lack of athleticism made him a liability in coverage but it’s difficult to detect that on film. Many scouts were surprised with how well he did during practices for the East/West Shrine Game, where he faced off against a more impressive collection of pass catchers than he saw on a weekly basis in the ACC.
Another criticism of McLoed is a noticeable lack of consistency from game to game. Versus Miami, in 2011, he was largely uninvolved, recording just four tackles, but the following week against Maryland, he notched seven tackles, with two passes defended, and three interceptions.
While at times McLoed seems to lack an overall feel for the game, but when he’s on, he flashes genuine potential, and has a high ceiling. As such, Baltimore could look to add a player like Rodney McLoed late in the draft. He’s probably not a starter early in his career, but could be a long term, special player.