A shutdown cornerback is among the hottest commodities in the NFL. They essentially cancel out the competitions best receiver, shadowing them all over the field and making them work for any and everything. From battle tested vets like Patrick Peterson of the Cardinals and Xavier Rhodes of the Vikings to young up-and-comers such as Marshon Lattimore of the Saints and William Jackson of the Bengals, there are plenty of teams that are fortunate enough to have a great cornerback on their roster, but how many teams can say they have two of them?
There’s only a handful of teams across the league that come to mind when I think about the best cornerback duos the league has to offer. The Jaguars with Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye, the Rams new super-pairing of Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, Casey Hayward and Jason Verrett of the Chargers, and… Ravens starters Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey? Do they really belong in the discussion? Most would be quick to dismiss that notion, and I understand why, but with a little luck along the way it’s certainly possible.
The Baltimore Ravens are probably the best franchise in the league when it comes to drafting cornerbacks. They’ve been spectacular in the first round, where they’ve selected four cornerbacks in the 23 drafts they’ve taken part in. Back in 1998 and 1999, Baltimore used their first round selections on CBs Duane Starks and Chris McAlister, respectively. They both had great careers, particularly McAlister. I believe his versatility and his ability to play the run paved the way for the guys on the roster today. He really embodied the qualities that the Ravens seem to look for in their outside cornerbacks today. Great size (6-1, 210 lbs), good speed, physical, man press corners.
When Smith was available at pick 27 in the 2011 Draft, the Ravens jumped at the opportunity to find their next McAlister. At 6-2, 210 pounds and having ran a 4.42 40, he was a perfect height/weight/speed prospect. Walterfootball.com’s draft scouting report from 2011 listed Smith as “physical, solid wrap-up tackler, capable in run support, shutdown corner potential” (sounds a lot like McAlister), and referred to Nnamdi Asomugha, who was the best cornerback in the league back in 2011, as his NFL player comparison because “at Colorado opponents always looked in the other direction instead of throwing at Jimmy Smith, which is how it is in the NFL with Asomugha.”
And just last year at pick 16, even after a free agency period that saw the team add S Tony Jefferson and CB Brandon Carr, they still elected to select Humphrey, despite the fact that their were players available at positions of greater need (a lot of fans were upset that TE OJ Howard wasn’t the pick). But Ozzie Newsome and company saw something that they really liked in Humphrey: a Jimmy Smith clone. At 6-0 197 pounds, even NFL.com’s draft scouting report listed Smith as his NFL player comparison. “Has the instincts and run-support skills to become an early starter for a zone-cover defense, but it will be hard for teams looking for a lockdown, man corner to pass on all of those physical gifts early in the draft.” There it is again. You see a pattern with these picks… tall, physical guys that can play the run and have the athleticism/physical makeup to develop into a shutdown corner.
Throughout his seven year career, Jimmy Smith has proven to be a good cornerback, and even a great one at times. But last season, Smith was looking every bit the part of a shutdown corner and appearing well on his way to a Pro Bowl season. Per Pro Football Focus, Smith allowed a passer rating of 49.2, good for fourth in the NFL. This is a guy that lined up against some of the best the league has to offer. Players like AJ Green, Antonio Brown, Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins. He didn’t just cover, he made plays on the ball, too. He managed 3 interceptions, 9 pass breakups, and 2 defensive touchdowns despite the fact that he was only targeted once per every 8.5 snaps in coverage (8th in NFL), tying him for ninth in playmaker index (per PFF). But, as is so often the case with Smith, he would end up missing significant time due to injury. He tore his Achilles’ tendon in the week 13 matchup with the Detroit Lions, ending his season prematurely. Smith has only played a full 16 game slate twice, missing at least a quarter of the season in the other five. But at this point in his career, that’s literally the only thing that can stop Jimmy Smith from doing his part and being one of the best corners in the game in 2018.
Humphrey had a great rookie season and made believers of fans that weren’t on board with his selection. In weeks 1-9 his role was to provide depth. He was on the field for only 34.6 percent (208/601) of the Ravens defensive snaps, and saw under 30 snaps in seven of those games. Despite the low snap count, Humphrey played well enough in the first half of the season to earn both a grade of 81.0 by PFF and a starting role following the week 10 bye. He played 398 of the 492 defensive snaps the rest of the way (80.1 %), in part due to Smiths injury. In week 14, Humphrey held Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant to six yards on three receptions over nine targets (he should have shadowed Brown the entire game, as Brown finished with 213 yards. Awesome job, Dean Pees).
Throughout his entire rookie campaign, Humphrey allowed a passer rating of only 53.5 on balls thrown his way, fifth in the NFL (for those of you keeping score, that’s fourth and fifth for Smith and Humphrey, respectively). Humphrey, like his counterpart, made plays on the football as well, finishing the year with 2 interceptions and 11 passes defensed. He certainly exceeded expectations and played well for a rookie, or by any measure really. But if you ask Humphrey, last season was only the tip of the iceberg. “Coming back a second year, things are a little slower. Last year I couldn’t get in a groove. Things kept happening so fast and I didn’t ask what was next. Instead, I just pushed and pushed and kept my head down taking on what was next. Now, I have more structure. I have learned some things from the older guys like taking care of my body and learning how to work.” He also spoke about what he wants to do better in his sophomore season. “The main things I want to focus on in year two is of course to be better and that includes my technique and making those plays to help win games. Pass breakups and interceptions. Those are the plays that change games and help our team to win.” In just one week of OTAs, teammates are already taking notice of Humphrey. Fellow defensive starter Brandon Williams had this to say of Humphrey “After watching him through the offseason workouts and getting through the first couple of days of OTAs, that dude is going to be a player.” You gotta love hearing that, and I have every reason to believe that he will in fact be a player.
Courtesy of Pro Football Focus
So, can Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey be the best cornerback tandem in the league in 2018? I think they are dark horses in this race. Having a new defensive coordinator in Wink Martindale that gives players more flexibility pre snap and the freedom to rely more so on their instincts will help, but they certainly aren’t the favorite. That’s probably a toss up between Ramsey/ Bouye and Talib/ Peters. Regardless, the Baltimore Ravens are extremely lucky to have both of these guys in a league hell bent on passing the football.
NOTE: I do realize that the majority of time there’s gonna be three cornerbacks on the field. Enter Tavon Young. Best triplets? Wellll, Young and Humphrey both had great rookie seasons but are still young, and it’s hard to go there considering two of the three are returning from major injuries. I give the edge here to the LA Chargers, who actually have four really good cornerbacks. In addition to Hayward and Verrett, they have Trevor Williams and Desmond King, who actually graded out as the #10 (88.5) and #14 (86.5) cornerbacks in the league by PFF last season. Hayward, at 96.4, was ranked #1.