What was expected became official Monday as the Ravens learned slot cornerback Tavon Young would miss essentially a third full season in a frustrating five-year career that began with such promise.
The 2016 fourth-round pick from Temple who quickly emerged to start 11 of his 16 games as a rookie has played in just 17 contests since then due to various injuries. Injuring his left knee — the same one surgically repaired three years ago — on Baltimore’s sixth defensive play in the 33-16 win over Houston on Sunday, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Young finds himself in an all-too-familiar position on the sideline.
“It is a torn ACL. It’s only a torn ACL, so that’s a positive,” said head coach John Harbaugh about the extent of the damage. “He’ll have surgery and go into rehab, and he’ll fight his way back. There’s no question about it. Our hearts go out to him on that, and we’ll be supporting him all the way.”
Since signing Young to a three-year, $25.8 million extension in February of 2019, the Ravens have gotten just one full game out of their slot cornerback, forcing coordinator Wink Martindale to make adjustments to a defense using at least five defensive backs roughly 87 percent of the time last season. The latest injury leaves Young’s future uncertain with two more years remaining on his contract — general manager Eric DeCosta could release him next offseason to save $3 million in salary cap space — but the Ravens must adjust quickly before their massive Week 3 showdown with Kansas City.
As was the case for much of last season when Young was out with a neck injury, the Ravens moved All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey inside to defend the slot against the Texans on Sunday, but Harbaugh wasn’t ready to commit to that being the primary strategy moving forward.
“We’ll see where we go. Knowing that we have options in the slot is really valuable,” Harbaugh said. “Of course, we put safeties in there too, but knowing that Marlon can go in there and play the way he did yesterday and last season is a big plus. We’ll just try to figure out what we’re going to do next during the course of the week, and we’ll have a plan for Monday night.”
In addition to Humphrey, there’s also the question of what a secondary reshuffling might mean for 32-year-old cornerback Jimmy Smith, who was just settling into a new hybrid role that included playing safety in the dime package and sometimes matching up with tight ends in coverage. With Young exiting the game early in the first half, Smith played 50 of 59 defensive snaps with much of that action coming at his old outside cornerback spot with Humphrey moving to the nickel.
The other in-house option on the 53-man roster would be third-year cornerback Anthony Averett, who played 23 snaps as an outside cornerback in Sunday’s win. The 2018 fourth-round selection from Alabama struggled last season after showing promise as a rookie, but he’s also held to a very high standard playing behind arguably the best cornerback duo in the league in Humphrey and fellow Pro Bowl selection Marcus Peters.
On Monday, Harbaugh provided an endorsement for Averett’s play against the Texans that included giving up some completions in coverage and committing an illegal contact foul with which the Baltimore coach disagreed. The 5-foot-11, 184-pound cornerback finished the day with four tackles.
His emergence would allow the Ravens to keep Smith at his hybrid role in the dime package at the very least.
“Anthony is not a concern for us. He’s practiced really well, [and] he’s played well when he’s played,” Harbaugh said. “He’s kind of biding his time. This will certainly be his opportunity to step in there and show what he can do. He’s played really well on special teams this year. We’re not concerned about Anthony. We’re excited to see him play.”
Baltimore also has young cornerbacks Terrell Bonds and Khalil Dorsey on its practice squad after both made a good impression during training camp. Dorsey is 5-foot-9 and Bonds 5-foot-8, making both more suitable options at the nickel. If Smith moves back to outside corner on a full-time basis, the Ravens could explore using veteran Anthony Levine more extensively in the dime package or take a look at rookie seventh-round safety Geno Stone, who’s been a healthy scratch for each of the first two games.
Wide receiver and veteran special teams contributor Chris Moore (broken finger) and rookie defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (right knee) missed their second straight game on Sunday, but it’s unclear whether either is a realistic option to return to action against the Chiefs.
“I’d say that they have a chance to practice this week at some point in time to some degree,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll just have to see how much they’re able to do. Chris Moore, if he is able to do enough, he could play special teams; he could jump right in there.
“Justin, he’s a rookie, so we’d have to see enough to feel comfortable with him out there Monday night. But from a health standpoint, this is the week that both of those guys have a shot.”
With Madubuike sidelined, fifth-round rookie Broderick Washington has been an active member of the defensive line rotation, but he played only three snaps against the Texans after seeing 28 in the season opener against Cleveland.