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NFL Draft

Marlon Humphrey’s Incredible 2019 Season Should Bust Stereotype

  • The Draft Network
  • July 22, 2020
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During Marlon Humphrey’s first two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, he wore the number 29. It was similar to his college number, 26, which he wore with the Alabama Crimson Tide—and for an early-drafted shutdown corner, either would have been an excellent aesthetic choice. But when All-Pro safety Earl Thomas III landed in Baltimore this past season, Humphrey gave Thomas the No. 29 jersey he had always worn in Seattle, and chose instead to don No. 44—the number his father wore in the NFL.

No. 44, unlike 29 or 26, is not a very good number for a shutdown corner. The number of John Riggins and Dick Lebeau and Leroy Kelly, it looks clunky on the slimmer, modern uniforms. Defensive backs wearing No. 44 are special-teamers, rotational safeties, bottom-of-the roster slot corners. And in that way, it was a preamble for the second sacrifice Humphrey would make for a veteran defensive back and the Baltimore defense.

Humphrey entered his third season as the starting corner opposite Jimmy Smith in the Ravens’ defense. Expectations were high after Humphrey entered training camp with next-level vigor and fitness, according to his teammates and coaches. And Humphrey delivered—but the opposite spot didn’t. Smith went down with injury, and a rotation of Anthony Averett, Brandon Carr, and Maurice Canady tried to fill in the gaps. 

As such, Humphrey, who was already going to be tasked with shadowing WR1s more often than he had in the previous two seasons, did so under increased stakes. That’s why, when Week 4 and the Cleveland Browns rolled around, Humphrey took 10 snaps in the slot—he was shadowing Odell Beckham Jr., the Browns’ star receiver who excels running routes from close alignments. And Humphrey locked him up pretty good.

https://youtu.be/4XCCb9usvfk

At the time, it served the function of disguise. The Ravens’ defense under Don ‘Wink’ Martindale is all about pressure packages, and particularly, pressure from some, but not all of a amorphous blob of second-level defenders. This theory of “creepers”—stand-up rushers with equal likelihood of dropping into short zones or shooting gaps—only works well if you have players like Humphrey who can be dangerous as blitzers, effective in true man coverage without safety help, and sound in hot zones when the quarterback wants to get the ball out quick. 

By bringing Humphrey into man coverage over Beckham in the slot, the Ravens were able to at least threaten the idea that they were only committing one defender to Beckham, even if they didn’t do it every time. Otherwise, they would have tipped their hand via alignment, and their blitzes would have taken the Browns less by surprise. As Ravens DB coach Chris Hewitt said: “He did so well that I was just like, ‘Hell, let’s just keep him there.’ And it worked out.”

Indeed it did. Humphrey tracked JuJu Smith-Schuster into the slot in Week 5 and Tyler Boyd on the A.J. Green-less Bengals in Week 6. By Week 7, the Ravens—4-2, humming on offense, and looking for extra juice in their secondary to make a true playoff push—sent linebacker Kenny Young and a fifth-round pick to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for cornerback Marcus Peters. Peters, one of the most aggressive and instinctual man-cover corners in the NFL, was custom-built for the havoc-wreaking Martindale offense—but he was strictly an outside cornerback. So the Humphrey experiment became permanent: Humphrey became the Ravens’ starting slot cornerback. 

This sounds simple; it’s not. As Humphrey himself said:

“It’s definitely been different. Just the different breaks and angles to the football… For me, it was a big adjustment just because I never really thought I could get in there and move too well. I had to learn a little bit more of the playbook. But it’s really made me see the game a lot better because I already know what the corner is doing, and then on the nickel, I know how the corner is going to play it. I try to play it to where when I was at corner, you have to think: How do you want your nickel to play? And I kind of try to get on the same page as the corner. It’s been a new twist for me, but I’ve been doing all right with it for now."

Little speaks to a player’s football IQ as cleanly as that sentiment. Humphrey stepped into the slot role without a significant dropoff in play, which is an unbelievable feat for a player who has never played in the role previously. Once Smith returned from injury after the bye, Humphrey stayed on the field and played outside corner in two-receiver sets, and kicked inside against lighter personnel, again matching top receivers on key drives. As Hewitt said, “He’s heard the defense over and over again. He knows what the safety is supposed to be doing, he knows what the nickel is supposed to do… he knows what the end is supposed to do. He knows who’s supposed to be dropping. So that gives him the versatility… and he can make those adjustments throughout the game.”

This was the case for Humphrey against the San Francisco 49ers, when he chased Emmanuel Sanders around the formation and occasionally slammed down against zone flow to force runners back into the teeth of his defense. Again was it the case against the Browns in Week 16, the team that started this whole escapade, in which Humphrey bounced across the entire Cleveland roster, covering receivers and tight ends as Beckham stayed on the outside, avoiding the Humphrey matchup.

https://youtu.be/hrtQQa866q8

https://youtu.be/Q7Izs-l_JcU

Those angles that Humphrey discussed from the slot? Different breaks to the football? Without the sideline protecting Humphrey from having to handle a variety of out-breaking routes, the newfound slot corner had to learn how to take flat angles to out-breaking routes to respect the threat of YAC and the cutback. Arguably, man coverage in the modern NFL is more difficult in the slot than on the outside. As WR1s increasingly play from reduced alignments, the slot affords them a two-way go that maximizes their route-running ability. Humphrey had to mirror those, using a different nature of leverage and patience than he had to when the sideline served as an extra defender to his advantage. He also saw more quick-breaking routes and had to adjust to undercutting breaks to deny quick passes.

https://youtu.be/CmrLMHaj_p4

For Humphrey to be a good outside cornerback, push into the slot, and become a better cornerback is ridiculous—but it happened. Humphrey once again had more than 10 passes defensed (14), which puts him with Giants CB James Bradberry and Eagles CB Darius Slay as the only three corners to have more than 10 PBUs in each season since Humphrey entered the league (2017-2019). According to PFF, Humphrey’s 10 “forced incompletions” in man coverage was third-best in the NFL, behind only Slay and 2019 DPOY Stephon Gilmore. Humphrey joined Peters on the First-Team All-Pro squad for 2019, his first recognition at that level. 

But all of this for a player who changed positions! Who went from the relative calmness of an outside corner in Martindale’s offense to the absolute insanity of a box player dedicated to disguise. Humphrey’s All-Pro nod was well-deserved, and perhaps his talent level will finally bust the misguided stereotype that the slot corner is the third-best cover guy on the team; he’s not. Humphrey is the best that Baltimore’s got, and arguably the best slot defender in the NFL. And it was only his first year on the job.

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