The decision by the Baltimore Ravens to bring free safety Ladarius Webb back in house was no surprise after his recent release.
Webb’s new three-year deal is only worth up to $10.5 million total, which makes much more sense for the aging eight-year veteran. His career looked all but done after the 2015 season, but a pre-2016 move to free safety kept Webb’s NFL dreams alive for a few more years, and he should be able to stick around in Baltimore beyond just 2017.
With new free agent addition Tony Jefferson in the starting lineup opposite Eric Weddle, Webb is now an odd man out at safety, but that might be a good thing. After the Jefferson signing and initial Webb release, the Ravens had virtually no depth at either safety position, and the return of Webb gives the Ravens just that.
To go out on a limb and say Webb even remotely resembles the player he was in 2011 (when he played at arguably an All-Pro level) is an overstatement, but at this juncture in the 31-year-old’s career, he can still be a quality contributor, especially in a more limited role.
Let’s take a look towards the end of the 2016 season and see where Webb still provides value, as well as where he has shown decline.
First, we can take a look at where Webb does not provide value to Baltimore’s defense. In pure one-on-one coverage against notably faster wide receivers, Webb is doomed from the snap if the receiver is running a route downfield.
Isolated in the slot with no over-the-top coverage, Webb has little chance of succeeding.
As the receiver works his way down the seam, Webb turns his hips, anticipating a down-the-field route.
Luckily for Webb, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady opts for a shorter throw, however as seen below, had Brady waited an extra second, Webb is on the verge of getting burned deep.
As Brady releases the ball, the receiver has already created notable separation from Webb, and at this point in Webb’s career, his recovery time is lackluster. Given that Weddle was originally on the right side of the defense, this would have been an easy pitch and catch (and potential touchdown) for the Patriots had Brady looked downfield.
Dealing with routes downfield in coverage is where Webb has clearly declined as an NFL defender. That should not be a surprise for a 31-year-old with an injury-riddled career.
Luckily for the Ravens, Webb is still one of the most instinctual players on the team, and that is where he still stands out on defense.
Webb can excel in isolated coverage if he keeps the play in front of him. His recovery speed may have massively declined, but his closing speed when the ball is in front of him is still top notch.
Here, Webb is left on an island to take on the slot receiver, and on the short throw, he sniffs out the play from the start and closes in for a minimal gain.
Webb often was the deepest man in coverage last season, but he stood out much closer to the line of scrimmage.
Even in this play, Webb is back to playing cornerback, as he is matched up with Le’Veon Bell on the outside.
As mentioned, Webb’s instincts and closing speed are still his best attributes, and his anticipation to be in the right position to halt any yards after the catch stands out.
Also of note is the fact that Webb’s tackling has not declined with age. He has always been a Grade-A example of how to wrap up the ball carrier, and fortunately for the Ravens, that still is the case.
Even as a deeper safety, Webb flashes as someone who can impact what is happening in front of him and prevent any extra yardage.
Here, Webb anticipates the glaring opening in the middle of the field for Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.
Webb closes in as Brown crosses over the middle, and meets the receiver instantly after the reception, wrapping up and preventing any extra yardage.
Little plays such as this go a long way in terms of sticking to a “bend but don’t break” defense. With the luxury of allowing Weddle and Jefferson to thrive as starters, Webb can provide value on third-and-long situations where he can be a line of defense to prevent any extra yardage after the catch for a first down.
As long as Webb keeps the play in front of him (which is often easier said than done), he can continue to bring value to Baltimore’s defense. Plus, for a defense with so many new contributors in recent years, it behooves the Ravens to keep Webb in purple and black as the younger defenders continue to grow.