If there was a strength of the Ravens last year (besides Justin Tucker), it was their secondary, and their cornerbacks in particular.
Baltimore’s defense was ranked 12th overall and their pass defense was better still. The Ravens allowed the third-lowest opponent quarterback rating (56.9) of any defense in the league last year. That’s saying a lot considering they had to face the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, Ben Roethlisberger (twice) and Peyton Manning.
Safeties James Ihedigbo and Matt Elam made some big plays, but they both also gave up some big plays – the biggest being a pair of 50-yard-plus touchdowns to A.J. Green (Ihedigbo versus Cincinnati, Elam at Cincinnati).
But when you get down to it, the best of the Ravens best last year was their cornerbacks. Corey Graham, Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith played really well under the direction of defensive backs coach Teryl Austin and defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
Returning from a 2012 ACL tear, Webb posted career highs in games started (16), tackles (74) and passes defensed (21). Smith showed a lot of improvement as well, as he also recorded career highs in games started (16), tackles (58), passes defensed (15) and forced fumbles (2).
Although Graham started only five games last year, don’t think his role was diminished. Particularly for defensive backs, the number of starts you’re credited with can be misleading.
Graham’s low number of starts is actually a testament to his talent, because he put up just as good, if not better numbers as any defensive back on the team despite having less opportunities.
In 2013, Graham had 74 tackles, 12 passes defensed and one forced fumble. Moreover, he led the team in interceptions (4) and was the only defensive back on the Ravens to record a sack (1.0). His 74 tackles tied him for 4th-most on the team (Webb).
So yeah, he’s valuable.
The Ravens signed Graham in 2012 for a total of $3.95 million. That’s a huge bargain for Baltimore. Graham was a key factor in their Super Bowl run and, in my opinion, was the Ravens’ best player last year.
Just because Graham is likely to command a high price in the upcoming free agent market doesn’t mean the Ravens should shy away from trying to re-sign him. If I’m the Ravens, I’d do what I’ve always done and procure the nucleus of the team while I can.
Just like offenses are moving to more three wide receiver sets, defenses are playing more and more “nickel.” A nickel defense is when the defense fields five defensive backs instead of the usual four. That fifth defensive back is almost always a cornerback.
Therefore, since Graham’s position is one of high value and since, quite frankly, he’s earned it, the Ravens would be wise to lock him up long-term.