Entering training camp, the Baltimore Ravens had a pretty steady and favorable roster, save one aspect.
The secondary as a whole was never a bright spot entering the 2014 season, with lack of depth an issue at both safety positions, as well as at cornerback, after Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb.
One player who was expected to aid the depth issue and step in as a contributor with hopes of filling Corey Graham’s void at nickel cornerback was veteran Aaron Ross, who never even practiced in pads with the team before suffering a season-ending achilles injury.
Losing Ross – a player who had an inside track to a roster spot – hurt, and it made Baltimore’s secondary just a bit more concerning, as if it wasn’t concerning enough.
If the Ravens had followed conventional wisdom they would have added another veteran cornerback to the roster to help bolster a unit severely defunct of quality depth.
But they didn’t.
Instead the Ravens signed a safety who has been suspended more times (three) than the amount of NFL seasons he has played (two).
Enter Will Hill.
On the surface, this could be viewed as a head-scratching move.
The Ravens, with all of their off-field issues, don’t make themselves look any better by adding a notorious drug user.
That said, Hill can bring that value to the team.
Signing a safety to replace Ross’ roster spot may not have been the ideal move, but Baltimore’s depth at safety was just as bad, arguably worse, before Hill was signed.
Suspended for the first six games of the regular season, Hill can practice with the team through the preseason, as well as play in each preseason game.
Then, assuming he proves himself enough during August, the Ravens will move on without him for six games, before potentially bringing him back as a depth/impact option during the second half of the season.
If Hill does eventually play for the Ravens during the regular season, what can he bring to the defense?
Had Hill been able to stay clean with the New York Giants – the team he played his first two NFL seasons with – he’d be entering the 2014 season as a player with the potential to become one of the better young free safeties in the league.
Still only 24, Hill joins the Ravens having played 24 games including 12 games during the 2013 season in which he was New York’s starting free safety.
The 12 games per season are a result of suspensions in each season, the same story the third time around.
When Hill is on the field, he’s an impactful defender whose ability to take on the last-man role for a defense will be a welcomed addition to the Ravens, as they struggled to find a safety capable of that role last season.
In 2013 with New York, the defense was frequently catered to Hill’s coverage ability by giving him the freedom and responsibility to occupy the back end without help.
In coverage, Hill possesses the range and back-end instincts needed to be a true free safety in the NFL.
He had two interceptions in 2013, and on both occasions, Hill’s closing speed, playmaking ability and natural feel as a defender were on display.
In the final minutes of a game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Hill feasted on an opportunity to take advantage of a desperation throw down the sideline to wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
With the ball in the air, Hill has plenty of ground to cover in order to undercut the speedy Jackson.
An underthrown ball gives Hill a chance to make a play, though, and his speed gives him a prime opportunity to pounce on the ability to seal the win for the Giants.
As the ball approaches Jackson, Hill positions himself and reacts in ample time.
The end result is an easy interception for Hill, who fully extends to block out any area for Jackson to make a play.
A simple opportunity in which Hill benefitted from a poor throw, but a prime example of his large defending radius in the secondary.
Later in the season against the Detroit Lions, an interception by Hill put more emphasis on his instincts than athletic ability with the end result being a touchdown.
On a play in which Hill has man coverage in front of him, his duty is to occupy the third level behind his defenders and bolt forward if an opportunity presents itself.
The throw on the play is to the tight end, but it is just out of reach of the intended target, making way for a roaming Hill behind the play.
As the back-end defender, Hill needs to leave ample space behind him to compensate for the deep passing game, while also being close enough to the intermediate level to aid if needed.
Hill’s instincts place him in the prime position to snag the batted ball, leaving him with an easy path to a pick-six after getting a quick jump on the play.
Capitalizing on the mistakes of the offense by being in the perfect position to not only intercept the pass but return it for a touchdown proves Hill’s worth as someone who can make an impact in the passing game.
Coverage is the main question when it comes to free safeties, although Hill’s willingness in run defense is also a welcomed addition.
Overall, in terms of pure on-field talent, the Ravens signed a player capable of making an impact for the team this season.
By the time he is eligible to play, Hill may face a tough counterpart for playing time in rookie Terrence Brooks, a player expected to take over as the starting free safety at some point this season and possibly as early as Week 1.
But even if not a starter, Hill provides the Ravens with something the Ravens didn’t have in 2013: depth at safety.
Past history tells us to expect the worst and hope for the best with Hill, whose past troubles have provided no assurance that he is past those issues.
If the Ravens can get 10 games out of Hill this season, though, the low-risk signing should turn out to be a sound investment.