Training camp battle: Nickel back

Training camp battle: Nickel back
July 18, 2014, 11:00 am
(Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY Sports)

When the Ravens open training camp next week, they will begin the process of culling a 90-man roster down to the regular-season limit of 53. There will a few starting spots up for grabs and figures to be intense competition at a few positions. This week we are looking at some of those battles, highlighting a key battle in each position group.

Training camp battle: Nickel back.

The Ravens have the luxury of two strong starting cornerbacks in Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith. But versatile, underrated Corey Graham was the primary nickel back last year and he has gone to Buffalo via free agency.

Considering the Ravens were in nickel coverage more than half the time last year -- Graham was on the field for 64 percent of the Ravens defensive snaps -- that is a major loss.

Who fills that void?

The logical choice is fourth-year corner Chykie Brown, who has seen limited action as a cornerback but has been a special teams standout and has been in the Ravens system since they made him a fifth-round pick out of Texas in 2011. Graham essentially went from special teams star with the Bears to starting nickel back with the Ravens, and now Brown is hoping for the same career path.

The only other returning cornerback is Asa Jackson, who has yet to play a defensive snap in two seasons with the Ravens. His career has been slowed by two suspensions for violations of the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs -- reportedly for use of the medication Adderall.

In preseason work Jackson has shown promise as a punt returner, and he made some standout plays in OTAs this spring as a defensive back, but he remains very much unproven.

The Ravens like to say you can never have too many cornerbacks, which is why they signed several as undrafted rookies and then added two veterans after minicamp workouts -- Aaron Ross and Dominique Franks.

Ross, a first-round draft pick in 2007, has made 52 starts over seven seasons. He won two Super Bowl rings with the Giants, where he worked under current Ravens secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo. But he will be 32 in September and missed most of last season with a back injury.

Franks, who turns 28 in October, has spent four seasons with the Falcons. He has been primarily a special teams player but does have three interceptions and nine pass breakups in his career.

With Ross and Franks in the fold, the battle for the nickel job has gotten much more interesting.

Prediction: This is Brown's job to lose. He enters camp as the starting nickel back, and he will retain it when the season opens. But the Ravens will keep at least one of those new acquisitions, so Brown's margin for error is slim.