Baltimore Ravens: Slot corner is a positional battle to closely follow

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 23: Cornerback Maurice Canady #26 of the Baltimore Ravens reacts after a play in the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium on December 23, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 23: Cornerback Maurice Canady #26 of the Baltimore Ravens reacts after a play in the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium on December 23, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

The secondary is arguably the strength of the defense for the Baltimore Ravens, but who will be playing in the slot next season?

The Baltimore Ravens have transformed the secondary from a position of need to a position of strength. It’s the defenses’ strong suit heading into the 2018 season even despite Jimmy Smith‘s torn Achilles. That should be no surprise, considering they have a league-leading $48.5 million invested in the position this season alone.

Smith’s availability for Week 1 remains a mystery, with no recent updates on his recovery. That was the driving force to pick up Brandon Carr‘s team option, leaving him and Marlon Humphrey as the two starting cornerbacks on the outside. The duo started the final four weeks of the 2017 regular season and that will likely continue with Smith still working his way back.

However, the nickelback (slot corner) position is one up for grabs heading into training camp. There was no clear starter last season and the departure of long-time defensive back Lardarius Webb opens up an intriguing competition this offseason.

As the offseason progresses, here are the four candidates to watch at the position.

Top candidates:

Maurice CanadyAfter missing the majority of his rookie season in 2016 with hamstring issues, Canady finally saw consistent game-time once activated off the short-term injured reserve list in November. He was ranked as the 24th best slot defender by Bleacher Report last season and spent time on the inside as well as the outside. Canady’s size at 6’1″ gives him the advantage over the other three candidates and he’s racked up the most recent playing time at the position. There are plenty of inconsistencies to fix for the young seventh-round pick but Canady has shown the flashes worthy of earning the starting spot.

Tavon YoungHeading into last season, Young was the unquestioned starter in the slot. He started 11 games as a rookie and played far beyond his 5’9″ frame. Young finished with eight passes defended and two interceptions, allowing the second-least yards per cover snap among rookies in 2016. The talent is there but it’s a question of health. Will we see the same burst from Young coming off a major knee injury? Given the reports, there’s nothing to suggest otherwise but any injury surrounding ligaments in the knee bring about a cause for concern.

Anthony AverettOzzie Newsome‘s affinity for Alabama players is known around the NFL and that continued with the selection of cornerback Anthony Averett. With two potential nickelback corner options coming off major knee surgery, the pick made sense in the fourth round. Averett was buried underneath a talented secondary in Tuscaloosa but is an in-your-face kind of player.  He struggled matched up against the likes of taller receivers but defending the slot will help in that department. The athleticism is off the charts, as seen at the NFL combine and Averett could be a legitimate option to work into the slot. Maybe not as a starter right away but certainly down the road.

Jaylen HillOf the four, Hill is on the outside looking in. From a tryout in rookie minicamp to becoming one of the defenses’ top preseason performers last season, Hill earned a much-deserved spot on the 53-man roster. But hamstring issues limited his time on the gridiron before suffering a torn ACL and MCL in a Week 16 win over the Colts. Hill is a scrappy press corner with a chip on his shoulder but the recovery process can be grueling for knee injuries. The fact that he suffered it late in the season doesn’t help the timetable either. Unfortunately, it could be the case of a lack of reps that may be the downfall of Hill’s chances at a starting spot. His lack of offseason playing time could open up the possibility for a player like Stanley Jean-Baptiste to make his way into the mix.

The bottom line:

I don’t expect this to be a positional battle that will feature a clear winner right away. OTAs and training camp will provide the first look but the preseason will be integral in determining the starting spot. That holds true especially for players like Young, Hill, and Averett, who are either returning from injury or have yet to showcase their talents at the NFL level.

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In the AFC North alone, the Ravens will be tasked with handling two of the top slot receivers from last season in Jarvis Landry and Juju Smith-Schuster. That’s just a small sample of the talented wideouts in the division. Nickelback is an undervalued position that will be integral to Baltimore’s secondary success this season. We’ll see how it plays out within the coming months.