A Closer Look at Stone, Washington, & Stephens
During and following the 2021 NFL Draft, the Baltimore Ravens added to their safety room, with the selection of Brandon Stephens from SMU in the third round (projected to move to free safety) and signing Ar’Darius Washington from TCU as an undrafted free agent. Moreover, before the draft, the Ravens quietly re-signed safety Geno Stone after he wasn’t tendered an exclusive rights tag by the Houston Texans in March. (Baltimore selected Stone in the seventh round of the 2020 draft from Iowa, fell victim to a roster crunch in December, and was ultimately waived, only for the Texans to claim him.)
Between these three additions, the Ravens have opened up the battle lines for a critical third safety role in the defense behind starters DeShon Elliott and Chuck Clark. Under defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s scheme, there is not an additional emphasis on playing “free” or “strong” safety. Clark and Elliott are interchangeable. But the two share similar traits and are at their best operating closer to the box, in more of a hybrid/rover role.
Stephens, Washington, and Stone represent an intriguing mix of options for Martindale to turn to for that deeper level coverage integrity and another rotational piece for his nickel, dime, and quarter packages. Washington and Stephens in particular also offer true slot corner skills, while Stone could play closer to the box and cover tight ends.
RSR analysts James Ogden (@NFLOgden) and Dev Panchwagh (@devpanchwagh) joined RSR contributor Michael Crawford (@abukari) to break down all three players and what to expect in 2021. (Also, special thanks to @yoshi2052 for his contributions.)
Q: In reviewing Stone’s 2020 season, what stood out to you as reasons to believe he can turn into a key contributor for the safety rotation this coming season?
Mike: Stone played two defensive snaps in 2020 in the Week 10 monsoon game vs the Patriots on Sunday night. He also only played 38 snaps on special teams – 19 in Week 9 in the Colts game and 19 in that Patriots game. Why do I mention those snap numbers? Because anything I say about Stone is based on a small sample size.
That said, I think Stone’s role on special teams could grow. He showed improved technique from the Colts game to the Patriots game. He was also used in different roles in the Patriots game on punt return, playing a few snaps at safety (off the line) in addition to aligning at wing/slot.
If the Ravens want to use a third safety in their dime or quarter packages, there could be a path to defensive snaps for Stone. He has the versatility to play on the back end or closer to the line of scrimmage. We should also keep in mind the importance of depth at safety, or at any position. You only have to look back to 2019 and the Week 5 game in Pittsburgh where Tony Jefferson suffered a season-ending injury. In one play, Chuck Clark became a starter.
Q: Stone was drafted in the seventh round. At the time, he was lauded as one of the steals of the 2020 NFL Draft class. He was one of Pro Football Focus’ best values. From a draft perspective, what stood out about Stone as a fit for Wink’s defense?
James: This is the classic Ravens answer, but good fits for Wink’s defense often have these things in common: smarts, toughness and effort. He was most certainly a darling of the pre-draft process and one of those guys you just expected to hear his name called far earlier than he did. The reason he did slide though, is one of the reasons he may not fit in Wink’s current defensive incarnation: lack of athleticism (more on that below). He was a classic, “gets-off-his-spot-quickly” guy, despite his athletic limitations. At Iowa, you could clearly see on tape his football intelligence and preparation helping him to make plays. Add to this the effort and toughness you saw from him on a down-to-down basis and you can see the beginnings of a Raven.
But the most recent selections on that side of the ball, and at defensive back over the much more distant past, have prioritized speed and explosion. Not only was he a measurably below-average athlete, but I also thought Stone struggled with reactive athleticism — that is, unexpected change of direction. He also has a pretty significant lack of length, and there were instances where that was a problem in the tackle. Despite being one of the most physical finishers in that class, this was usually predicated on him getting in position early to make the hit.
The lack of length and athleticism, and more importantly the clear instances of that being an issue on tape, were ultimately why he slid to the seventh round. But like the Ravens and many others, I liked him a lot. I still believe that the things that make him a Raven are also the things that could make him ultimately successful in the league with further development.
Q: What is your bottom line outlook for Stone in 2021?
Dev: Stone remains one of my low-key sleepers to snatch that deeper coverage and split safety role next season — at least in the beginning, until the rookies gain their footing. He processes what he sees so well and has a high football IQ. Those attributes help him cover up his lack of athleticism and change of direction. In that sense, he reminds me of Chuck Clark. He’s going to get by on his instincts and natural feel for depth and having impeccable timing. However, he’s probably better suited playing closer to the box as a dime back and potentially lined up 1-on-1 against tight ends. Lateral movement is not his strong suit.
I see Stone being a viable candidate to win that third safety role in 2021 and push for playing time between Elliott and Clark. He has a leg up, having been in Wink’s system for a chunk of the 2020 season, and having a true offseason to continue learning should help. The issue for Stone is that he’s not likely a long-term solution, especially as a deep patrol player.
He’s a smart player, but that doesn’t mask his limitations.
Q: After drafting Stephens (a surprise pick), Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta stated the rookie defensive back could “end up being a really, really good free safety.” Do you agree? What do you like about his film so far?
Mike: Stephens shows natural balls skills, athleticism and versatility on tape. In two years at SMU (23 games) he broke up 17 passes and had one interception. He looked very instinctive in terms of tracking the ball in the air and breaking on throws. While he’s only played in 23 games as a DB, he looks fluid in a backpedal and when mirroring routes. In the games I watched, he aligned at outside CB, slot CB, single high safety and two-deep safety. I think his ability to make plays on the ball, and in run support, will only improve as he continues to refine his technique and gain experience at the position. I’m excited to watch his development and like his fit in the Ravens’ defensive scheme.
I think Stephens could contribute immediately on special teams, having played there both at UCLA and SMU. I could also see him used situationally in specific defensive packages as he gets comfortable learning the defense and transitioning to the NFL.
Q: Stephens is one of the most physically gifted DBs from the draft who tested well. How do you see those physical skills — long arms, raw strength, change of direction — translating to the NFL?
James: One of the clearest tendencies of Ravens defensive selections over the years has been to prioritize tackling ability. The long arms, raw strength, and change of direction are required attributes in this defense, largely for how much they help a prospect in making tackles at the next level. The Ravens often take some of the most tough and physical defenders in a class largely because at defensive back, these are also the best tacklers in the class.
Stephens shows a willingness to be physical on tape to go with his physical attributes. Does he take some bad angles and whiff? Yes. But that comes with the territory of being such a late conversion to that side of the ball, let alone the position. You can see from my review of Stone how length can impact a tackler in the NFL; this will clearly help, as will his strength, but it’s that change of direction that most intrigues me.
Of course that agility will help as he starts to learn more as a pure cover guy — he moves so well — but I thought everything looked better for him when coming downhill at this point, which is why I think the Ravens have him pegged as a future safety. In this, his change of direction will be a real boon to his ability to limit yards after the catch. Mike has talked about his ball skills and that will be huge for preventing completions at the catch point, but the Ravens also seem to handicap some percentage of completions inevitably being allowed and therefore prioritize making sure those passes that are completed on them, don’t turn into huge gains. Stephens can help there too.
Q: What is your bottom line outlook for Stephens in 2021?
Dev: Comparing the notes on Stone vs. Stephens, it seems like they are polar opposites. Stephens has all of the physical attributes Stone simply does not possess, but Stone has that processing and natural on-field savvy Stephens doesn’t quite have just yet. The reality is, as a converted running back, Stephens clearly has the high football IQ to continue elevating his recognition at the safety position.
But for now, is it too much to ask of Stephens to man the single-high, two-deep, and deep-middle-third responsibilities in Wink’s complex coverage scheme? I think so. It seems like more of a long-term chance for him to transition over.
I don’t see Stephens seeing the field in a big way unless injuries strike — for the Ravens, this is an unfortunate likelihood though. The great thing about Stephens is that he’s also got primary, outside corner experience too, plus he can play the slot. I personally believe he should handle outside/boundary corner duties when it makes sense where he can use his length, mirroring ability, and raw physical traits to get some early wins.
Q: Washington is undersized — 5’8”, 176 pounds — but he seems like he overcomes that with his instincts and overall competitive play style. What do you see on film that gives you confidence he could overcome the size limitations?
Mike: Washington mirrors and matches routes very well in man coverage. He was consistently in good position and forced QBs to look away from the man he was covering. TCU’s defense is known for its quarters coverage shell (two deep safety look), but Washington also rotated to the deep middle third of the field and played as a post safety. Washington is also quick to trigger in run support, running the alley and using solid technique to get bigger players on the ground. As with Brandon Stephens, Washington is a versatile DB who could play multiple roles in a defensive secondary.
Like many UDFAs, Washington’s path to making the roster probably starts on special teams. He has experience, playing on five of the six special teams units at TCU. If he’s able to earn a roster spot, I could see his role expand beyond special teams because of his instincts and versatility.
Q: Where did you have Washington in your pre-draft projections? How does he fit the Ravens and this defense?
James: Washington was such a hard guy to slot amongst this very versatile safety class given his historic lack of size — that is if you consider him a pure safety, but also consider his lack of range that we eventually saw as a measurable lack of speed.
I suspect the data that teams get from on-field trackers backed up this relative lack of speed that we saw measured at his Pro Day, and was likely why he ultimately went undrafted. The lack of speed isn’t egregious, but combined with his lack of length, it makes it hard to project him to a starting role at the next level. However, the tape is the most important thing, and I wholeheartedly agree with Mike that he had a special trigger and that this gives him a chance at the next level.
The other thing that eventually led me to bring Washington in above many drafted guys at the position, as my 10th rated safety, was the ability in man coverage that Mike also references. Ultimately the Ravens may like him more because of the chess piece-like versatility he will be able to bring. I suspect the Ravens would love for Washington to defy his physical limitations and end up being deployed more regularly at safety. However, it seems to me that his movement skills, instincts, football IQ and toughness in short areas were only really third to Molden and Wade as potential nickel corners in this class.
Q: What is your bottom line outlook for Washington in 2021?
Dev: Mike and James painted a few different possibilities. The fact that the TCU coaches trusted Washington to man the deep middle third while Molden played slot corner speaks to Washington’s ability to play that role at a high level. I could see Wink’s wheels turning and finding ways to put him in that spot in very specific situations so he can maximize personnel matchups, especially against heavy spread looks.
Ironically, Stephens was drafted ahead of Washington (who went undrafted altogether), but I see Washington being more pro-ready to handle the traditional deep patrol responsibilities.
Beyond being another deep patrol chess piece who could factor into any three safety or two safety dime looks, I believe Washington could also be in the mix as a slot corner. However, it seems like that’s a crowded position already — it’s crazy to think the Ravens didn’t have a single true slot CB last year (following Tavon Young‘s injury) and now they have three or four possible candidates.
Washington has his work cut out for him to make the team. But given that the front office offered him more guaranteed money to outbid other teams, they value him, and he’ll get a long look. Plus he has extensive special teams experience.
The great part about his game is he can give you a little bit of everything — deep patrol, slot, box, blitz. However, the more he’s exposed, the more teams can scheme to isolate bigger WRs against him. Wink will need to be tactical with his packages but I expect him to see the field as a hybrid defender who can move all over, mostly at safety.
Q: All three safeties present Wink with additional depth, coverage skills, and flexibility he simply did not have in 2020. However, how do you best see them being deployed given that Wink uses a variance of personnel grouping for his dime?
Mike: That’s the beauty of the Ravens defense – they can be deployed in a variety of ways. I think any of them could play conventional safety roles on the back end, such as patrolling the deep middle or the deep half. They could also play man coverage on the outside or in the slot. They could also be used as blitzers and in run support. We also can’t forget how they might contribute on special teams, possibly as gunners on punts or covering kick-offs. So you’re probably getting the picture that I think the versatility that’s baked into the defense aligns well with the diverse skill sets these players possess.
James: The Ravens are keen for versatility across their defensive backs, especially in the Wink era. Elliott and Clark both played significant snaps across different alignments in their college careers. On Stephens, we kind-of have to give the Ravens the benefit of the doubt on taking a player in the third round that they think can develop into a starter. I suspect we will see him rotated in as an extra defensive back reasonably regularly at both Cornerback and Safety, with an eye on 2022, when we may have to wave goodbye to Elliott.
With Washington and Stone, it comes down to whether they can overcome their physical limitations with their intelligence and toughness to become successful role players in this defense. That will require them being able to be more than just a specialist — something a less creative defensive coaching staff might not be able to extract from them.
Dev: One of the elements to consider for Wink’s sub packages (nickel, dime, quarter) in 2020 compared to 2021 is that he simply did not have the manpower to deploy three safety packages with regularity. The abrupt move to release Earl Thomas before the season really tied his hands and he had to roll with Elliott as the starter at free safety. Behind Clark and Elliott, they had no viable options, and Anthony Levine’s snaps were reduced. Also, the plan in the offseason was to get Jimmy Smith more involved as a third safety/move player but lack of depth and Young’s injury really nixed that possibility too.
I expect the three-safety dime to come back in a bigger way in 2021. However, it’ll be intermixed with four-corner looks. And given Stephens and Washington’s ability to also play corner, you could have a true hybrid approach for the dime.
In addition, look for more rotation and substitution between Elliott and Clark. They both saw the field plenty last season but I could see Wink subbing them both more, trying to maximize the reps across personnel packages, which is something he did more often in 2018 as well between Clark, Tony Jefferson, and Eric Weddle.
We have seen the benefits of rotation at cornerback — Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, and Smith taking turns at outside CB. We saw that when Brandon Carr was a Raven as well. And I expect the same treatment at safety.