OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Eighty percent of the Ravens’ projected nickel secondary remains sidelined less than two weeks away from the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, but you won’t observe any sense of panic from John Harbaugh.
Cornerbacks Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith, and Asa Jackson as well as strong safety Matt Elam are currently out with various ailments, but the head coach remains optimistic that all will be ready when Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and a talented Bengals offense comes to Baltimore on Sept. 7. Harbaugh said Tuesday he expects Webb — who’s been sidelined with back spasms since July 25 — and Smith to be practicing by early next week while Jackson was running and working on lateral movement during Tuesday’s practice. Elam is expected to be practicing again by the end of the week after suffering a minor leg injury in Saturday’s preseason game against Washington.
Even if those expectations become reality for the Baltimore defense, serious questions remain at the No. 3 corner spot that’s essentially become a starting role in today’s pass-happy NFL. Jackson has never played a defensive snap entering his third season while fourth-year corner Chykie Brown saw only 39 defensive snaps during the 2013 regular season.
Needless to say, general manager Ozzie Newsome has been scanning the market to potentially add veteran cornerback help following the free-agent departure of Corey Graham in the offseason. The Ravens signed former Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dominique Franks in mid-June, but his play this summer has been inconsistent after he was largely relegated to special-teams duties last season.
The poor health and lack of experience behind Webb and Smith have prompted many pundits and fans alike to clamor for an impact move as soon as possible.
“Maybe there will be a guy that will fall and somebody is going to have a real need for something that we have to offer,” Harbaugh said. “I know Ozzie and Eric [DeCosta] and Vince Newsome and George [Kokinis] and those guys are all talking with everybody around the league in terms of what’s out there. Not that we feel we have any desperation things that we have to get, but from the standpoint that [if] there’s something that we can get better, we want to do that.”
Trades at the end of the summer have been sparse in the Harbaugh era as the only impact swap came at the end of the 2010 preseason when the Ravens traded a fifth-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks for cornerback Josh Wilson. Needing another defensive back after starter Domonique Foxworth suffered a season-ending knee injury at the start of training camp, Baltimore benefited greatly from that acquisition as Wilson — now with the Falcons — started nine games and intercepted three passes to help the Ravens to a 12-4 record and a third straight trip to the playoffs.
Might the Ravens draw from a position of strength such as linebacker or wide receiver and possibly couple that with a draft pick to nab an established cornerback?
Harbaugh isn’t betting on it.
“We look at that every year, the opportunities to make trades and things like that,” Harbaugh said. “And every year, I’m usually disappointed that we don’t get anybody, because people don’t want to trade good players. It’s not as predominant as you would like to think it is going to be.”
Options are slim on the current market with veterans such as Asante Samuel, Chris Houston, and Dunta Robinson carrying age- or injury-related baggage that hasn’t been attractive to teams this summer. If the Ravens were interested in any of those veteran options, they likely would have pulled the trigger by now to give them sufficient time to learn Dean Pees’ defensive system.
Over the years, Newsome has been known to find a gem or two who was let go by another team at the end of the preseason such as offensive tackle Willie Anderson in 2008 or safety James Ihedigbo in 2012, but cornerback talent is at an ever-increasing premium with rules consistently trending toward offense. The odds simply aren’t great to be able to complete a reasonable trade that will help, but that’s fine with the seventh-year head coach as the Ravens prepare to play their final preseason contest in New Orleans on Thursday night.
“I like our team right now the way it stands,” Harbaugh said. “If we can get better, great. You get your hopes up, [then] they’re probably going to be dashed. But you can never count Ozzie out. He’s pretty special.”
NOTES: Harbaugh said he has decided whether suspended running back Ray Rice will play in the preseason finale, but he chose not to disclose his answer to the media. It would be surprising to see the three-time Pro Bowl selection playing behind a second-string offensive line that’s been suspect this summer. … Sixth-round quarterback Keith Wenning’s future remains in limbo as the Ravens haven’t carried three quarterbacks on their 53-man roster since 2009, but Harbaugh downplayed the difficulty of the decision. “You just decide who your best 53 players are. If the third quarterback is in the top 53, he’s on the team. If he’s not, he’s not. It’s simple.” … Quarterbacks are wearing new practice jerseys (modeled by backup Tyrod Taylor below) that are black with purple numbers, replacing the red models worn since Harbaugh arrived in 2008. The change was likely inspired by the practice jersey worn by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — a black top with red numbering — when his team practiced with the Ravens in Owings Mills earlier this month.