The re-signing of veteran Lardarius Webb should be about more than just depth for the Ravens.
Yes, the 31-year-old is a good insurance policy behind starters Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, but his play in his first year as a safety in 2016 was more than respectable, ranking 15th among qualified safeties by Pro Football Focus and 10th among free safeties in Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 system. Relegating him to a strict backup role and special teams would seem to be a waste of his talents, especially for a versatile player who received a three-year deal for a reported maximum value of $10.5 million.
How then might defensive coordinator Dean Pees use Webb in the Baltimore defense?
Though the former starting cornerback can no longer play an outside spot in anything but an emergency situation, his coverage skills and tackling ability still make him a decent option for the inside nickel spot. The problem is that you wouldn’t want Webb playing in place of 2016 fourth-round pick Tavon Young, who was one of the great successes of last season. It remains to be seen whether the 5-foot-9 Young can thrive as an every-down corner lining up on the outside in the base defense — a major reason why the Ravens signed veteran Brandon Carr last month — but the second-year corner showed impressive ball skills and should be a mainstay in the nickel package at the very least.
Might a little more creativity be in the works with the secondary?
It’s no secret that the Ravens value Jefferson a great deal, evident by the four-year, $34 million contract they awarded him at the start of free agency. The former Arizona Cardinal’s greatest strengths are playing the run and clamping down on opposing tight ends, which are certainly useful skills but not reminiscent of a deep center-field safety like Ed Reed. Frankly, it’s a steep financial commitment to make if the Ravens are only going to use Jefferson in a standard safety role, making you think there’s more to it.
Baltimore is in need of a three-down linebacker to fill the void left by the retired Zach Orr. Perhaps 2016 second-round pick Kamalei Correa will be ready to assume that job, but it’s easier to find a capable two-down inside linebacker than it is to find the kind of talent who can consistently hold up in pass coverage. That’s where the arrival of Jefferson and the return of Webb could come into play.
Despite rarely ever using the dime package — which consists of six defensive backs and usually one linebacker — in Pees’ five-year tenure as the defensive coordinator, the Ravens practiced it extensively in the spring and summer of 2016 before it disappeared in the regular season. Reserve defensive back and special-teams standout Anthony Levine saw the most practice time at the dime spot last year, but he saw only 109 defensive snaps last season.
Jefferson would appear to be a good fit to serve in a hybrid linebacker-safety role next to C.J. Mosley in many passing situations. It’s obvious that the Ravens have made it a priority to improve their pass defense this offseason, but Jefferson also tackles like a linebacker, which would diminish the chances of the run defense being too vulnerable in a dime look. His strength is playing closer to the line of scrimmage, and the presence of Webb at safety next to Weddle in the sub package would allow Pees to be more aggressive with Jefferson in the box and to match him up with tight ends.
Such an alignment would not only better showcase the 25-year-old safety’s skills, but it would put less pressure on Orr’s replacement in 2017. The dime would make Webb’s re-signing more impactful than simply improving conventional depth in the secondary.