After the 2011 season, the Ravens made a seemingly innocuous signing. Bolstering their special teams unit, they etched former Chicago Bear Pro Bowl gunner, Corey Graham, to a 2-year deal worth $4.2 million. Though not a household name by any extent, any fan would struggle to find negative comments about the former University of New Hampshire standout. What had seemed to be a safe move to improve the third phase, actually turned out to be a very savvy move to improve the defense as well.
Next Man Up is the motto that the Ravens operate under (and most NFL teams, as well, though they don’t often fill holes as capably as Baltimore), so when Corey Graham signed with the Ravens, it is more than likely he did so under the assumption of increased opportunities. Well, Graham seized that opportunity, and over the past two years, he has been one of the key contributors to the Ravens defense, making some of the most important plays of the entire postseason in the Ravens’ Super Bowl run (I assure you that Peyton Manning remembers Mr. Graham).
The thing about the whole Next Man Up thing, though, is that with the success the franchise is accustomed to in developing quality starters, those starters often reap the benefits elsewhere. Paul Kruger, Arthur Jones and Dannell Ellerbe are the most obvious players to cash in on their boosted playing time, all receiving contracts worth more than $30 million. However, Graham also benefitted from his success, and he signed a four-year deal with the Buffalo Bills this offseason for $16 million. Graham, who is native to the Buffalo area, didn’t get an opportunity to contribute on the defensive side of the ball until his tenure in Baltimore.
When Graham made the decision to come to Baltimore, a big part of that choice was motivated by former Raven (and Bear) special team ace, Brendan Ayanbadejo. His quotes about Chicago and Baltimore illustrate a stark contrast in organizational philosophies:
“I didn’t just wing it, I talked to B.A. [Brendan Ayanbadejo],” Graham said. “I’ve seen B.A. go from just playing only on special teams to playing on defense. When he was in Chicago I remember them saying he would never play on defense. It’s all about the situation. That’s why when you make these decisions you try to make what’s best for you, and I think I’ve made a great decision so far.
Graham would later say:
“That’s just how it was, it didn’t really matter what I did. I could go out there in training camp and lead the team in interceptions. I could go out there every day and make plays. What it came down to in Chicago — I was just going to be a special teams guy. That’s just what [former Bears head coach] Lovie [Smith] wanted from me. Even in meetings, that’s all he talked about: ‘Corey is our guy on special teams.’ No matter if I would go out there and get six picks in practice, he would say something about special teams. It’s not like I don’t want to do special teams. I’ve done it my whole life. I enjoy it, but some situations are better than others.”
It’s funny, too. Because the scenario that Graham described above — making plays all preseason and training camp and seemingly leading the team in interceptions — came to fruition in the 2012 preseason. Graham staked claim to a significant role on the Ravens’ defense (and of course, special teams) and didn’t look back.
According to Pro Football Focus, Corey Graham’s 705 snaps played on defense this season were more than standout players like Elvis Dumervil and Arthur Jones. Of the 473 snaps that were played in coverage, just over 45% of them (219 snaps) came from the slot, as Graham often occupied the nickel cornerback role in the Ravens’ defense. However, in today’s NFL, the nickel corner is just as important as the two starters. Players like Wes Welker opened up an entire new sect of skill on offenses and defenses, and Graham stepped into the role capably.
So, it is evident that the Ravens used Corey Graham quite a bit over the past two seasons. Is his absence going to be a bigger problem than fans expect?
His four-year deal with Buffalo is certainly a great result for Graham — who parlayed his first opportunity as more than a special teamer into the most job security of his career — and at the price, seems to be a pretty good deal for Buffalo, as well. Graham is extremely solid, though not spectacular, and although he won’t make the amazing plays or shut down the game’s best athletes, he will make the smart play and pretty much always handle his assignment. That peace of mind for a defense is something that can’t be taken for granted, and though Graham will be entering his age 30 season, his skillset isn’t necessarily predicated on athleticism, meaning he may not regress too steeply. (Interestingly, the Bills are apparently planning on letting Graham compete for the starting strong safety role.)
However, Buffalo’s gain is Baltimore’s loss, and the absence of Graham leaves the Ravens in another Next Man Up scenario.
At the moment, the next man up seems to be former Texas Longhorn and 2011 fifth round pick, Chykie Brown. Brown has played sparingly on defense in his first three seasons, and although he has shown flashes of good coverage skills, at other times he has appeared somewhat lost. Surely he recognizes the opportunity that lies ahead of him, and he has to know that if he ever stakes claim to a consistent role on the Ravens’ defense, this is his chance. He will be competing with Asa Jackson, who the Ravens selected in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. Neither of the two have contributed significantly in their careers, so if they win the job, they will have to prove their worth in game action before the fans feel safe.
Although fans can’t help but put their trust in the organization’s personnel decisions, the departure of Graham was somewhat bittersweet. The Ravens’ secondary at the end of last season was really hitting its stride, and if the team could have brought back the top three of Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham to pair with an older Matt Elam and whoever is brought in at safety, there is every reason to believe that the secondary could have been near the top of the league. However, as is, there are two holes to fill in the group.
The Ravens have drafted defensive backs in five of their last six seasons, indicating that they intend to add more depth at the positions. However, the quality of depth and experience of those players is tantamount to the success, and simply plugging in a fresh-face on defense isn’t a solution. It will be very interesting to monitor the Ravens’ nickel cornerback position as they head into the regular season, as NFL teams are continuously upping the percentages of formations that utilize three wide receivers. It is to the Ravens’ benefit that Lardarius Webb is versatile enough to line up both outside and inside (he actually may be better in the slot), however, that isn’t to say there are starting quality cornerbacks just sitting on the open market at this juncture.
As it stands, the handling of the secondary is my only qualm with the Ravens’ offseason thus far. Realistically, I would probably rather spend $16 million on Graham than $12 million on Jacoby Jones, however, I understand the decision from both perspectives. Graham seized the opportunity when it presented itself in 2012; the Ravens are hoping that the next man up does the same.