With the Baltimore Ravens releasing strong safety Bernard Pollard (who just signed a one-year deal with the Tennessee Titans) and free-agent free safety Ed Reed agreeing to terms with the Houston Texans, the Super Bowl champions are now down two starters in their secondary.
The Ravens aren't lacking in the defensive needs department at present. They require both inside and outside linebackers and could also use at least one other starting-caliber cornerback with Cary Williams now a Philadelphia Eagle. The glaring holes at safety must also be addressed, but it in a way that allows the Ravens to also fill their other vacancies.
So how can they do it?
Currently on the Ravens active roster are safeties James Ihedigbo, who was just re-signed to a one-year deal, and 2012 rookie Christian Thompson, whose season ended on injured reserve. They also have exclusive-rights free agents Emanuel Cook and Anthony Levine, restricted free agent Omar Brown and special teams specialist Sean Considine, who is currently an unrestricted free agent and could be re-signed.
Among these safeties, it seems like Ihedigbo has the best chance to move up to a starting role in 2013, but his one-year contract and his special teams work seems to indicate he's not the strongest contender. It's possible, of course—he did play 295 total snaps in 2012 on top of his special teams contributions, but it's hard to extrapolate that he can turn that into a successful season of 1,000 or more snaps.
Granted, the Ravens have shown a willingness to expand the roles of their more marginal players when they have the need and the talent warrants it.
Look at linebacker Paul Kruger, who just left for the Cleveland Browns. Kruger played under 400 snaps in 2011 as a situational pass-rusher and then played 1,068 snaps in 2012 as a starter, earning him a solid payday with the Browns as a result. If the Ravens see Ihedigbo as similarly capable to take on a greater workload, he could get the nod at strong safety this season, even if as nothing more than a stopgap.
If the Ravens feel comfortable enough with Ihedigbo as Pollard's replacement, they'll still need someone to take over for Reed at free safety and add depth that isn't just for special teams purposes.
Thompson is somewhat of a starting option, but he's raw and wasn't able to play for the entirety of his rookie season, while Cook only contributed on special teams. Although veteran Michael Huff is set to meet with the Ravens this week, indications still point to the Ravens being able to fill this position in the draft.
Top prospect Kenny Vaccaro is likely out of the Ravens' reach unless they want to trade up, which they could—they have their full complement of picks in Rounds 1 through 7 as well as one compensatory pick apiece in Rounds 4 through 7, which certainly gives them the flexibility. However, with the Ravens needing at least two inside linebackers and one on the outside, they may choose to address one of those vacancies in the first round and leave safety for later.
A great option for the Ravens is to move some of those extra picks in order to come up in Round 2 and take Florida's Matt Elam. Though some may think of Elam as better suited at strong safety, his ability in deep coverage shows that he's versatile enough to work as a free safety in Baltimore. He had 76 total tackles in 2012 along with four interceptions, two sacks and a forced fumble.
Jonathan Cyprien out of Florida International is also someone the Ravens could use their second-round pick for, though it too may require them to move up. Cyprien is exceptionally strong in coverage with the speed to keep up with receivers and tight ends, which makes him a perfect free safety for the Ravens—he's certainly in Reed's mold. The only slight concern with him is whether his small-school background can swiftly translate into NFL-caliber skills.
Georgia's Bacarri Rambo could potentially fall to the Ravens in the second or even third rounds, which would make him a steal. His off-field issues—such as being suspended for drug use for the first four games in 2012—have his draft stock in limbo, but if those days are truly behind him, he will be a force in the NFL. It's just about the Ravens' willingness to take a risky player, or rather, whether the Ravens see him as a risk at all.
The Ravens have willfully gone into rebuilding mode just a month after winning the Super Bowl for good reason—it was time to get younger and save money in order to be a contender in the long term. However, the success or failure of this regrouping depends heavily on how they handle the upcoming draft and how well they can find pieces to fit the holes they've created.
It certainly isn't ideal that on top of their needs at linebacker in particular, they need to replace two starting safeties. However, Ihedigbo could very well be their answer at strong safety, and this year's class of free safety talent gives the Ravens more options than is typical.
It's not impossible to think that they'll be just as strong in the secondary this year as they've been in years past, but it depends on finding the players who are right for them and their ability to land them.
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