Music provided by: Eddie Spaghetti – The Value of Nothing
Music provided by: Eddie Spaghetti – The Value of Nothing
As a part of our series on the 2013/14 Ravens defense, we’re going to start looking at young veterans who are projected to have a big impact this fall. This piece will dig deeper into the Ravens’ backup-turned-starting corner, Corey Graham. Don’t miss our previous parts of this series: 1) Arthur Brown 2) Matt Elam 3) John Simon 4) Brandon Williams 5) Courtney Upshaw and 6) Jimmy Smith.
Discuss this piece on the Message Board here.
Through the first few weeks of the 2012 season, Corey Graham was simply a backup cornerback on the roster who was relegated to Special Teams duties when he played at all. But he was suddenly thrust into action in the Week 6 game against Dallas when Lardarius Webb left the game (and the season) injured with his second career ACL tear. With Jimmy Smith struggling with his own injuries, Graham was given the starting cornerback role opposite Carey Williams as well as slot corner duty in the Ravens’ Nickel package. His usage is plotted below:
The Backup “Stepping Up”
The Ravens had a disappointing season on the defensive side of the ball by their own standards. Much of this was due to injuries (Suggs, Webb, Jimmy Smith, Ray Lewis, etc.), but injuries are an ever-present reality in football, so the next man must be ready to fill the role vacated by those at the top of depth chart.
Based on the chart above, one can see that once Jimmy Smith went down (after Week 9 vs. CLE), the majority of Graham’s snaps-per-game were no longer dominated by coverage duties in Nickel or Dime situations. He began to be a regular starter and, save for the meaningless Week 17 game, Graham played no less than 97% of the teams’ snaps per game.
It’s clear that the Ravens preferred Graham’s skill-set over Chykie Brown and Chris Johnson, so I decided to take a look at the season that was to see how he’ll fit in the defense this coming season.
Watching this defense through the past few years (and defensive coordinators), we see that the Ravens clearly covet versatility. This system asks its players to execute a number of variable tasks throughout a game and to excel at each of them. Few Ravens exhibit this trait more than Corey Graham. I saw Graham filling the following roles on multiple occasions:
While Graham doesn’t exhibit natural straight-line speed, he has good acceleration with nimble hips that help him cover receivers across the middle of the field. His field sense also stood out as a strength based on his efficient switching on route combinations and understanding of complex zone coverages/blitzes that the Ravens often employ.
As a Slot Corner
When offenses attacked the Ravens with >2 receiving threats, Graham bumped from his outside CB role to the slot. This is where he made his biggest impact. As an example of Corey Graham’s slot play, I looked at his pass deflection (and eventual INT) in the waning minutes of the Wild Card Playoff game.
In Image #1, Graham is defending Reggie Wayne in the slot in man-to-man coverage. The Ravens prefer to jam the slot receivers, especially with short yardage, in order to keep them from running unabated “option” routes that kill 3rd down defenses. Graham doesn’t have the luxury of pressing as Wayne is off the LOS.
Image #2 exemplifies why slot corner is so difficult to play. Wayne has just gotten out of his stance and Graham is forced to back-pedal straight because Wayne has a “2-way go.” Besides studying team tendencies, Graham has no way to discern whether his matchup will run his route inside or outside.
Once Wayne breaks to the outside (Image #3), Graham accelerates forward and looks back to the QB well before the WR does. Risky? Yes, he could get double-moved, but the Ravens are blitzing so Graham knows the ball needs to come out. Graham drives to the ball, deflects it into the air, and Carey Williams pulls it down for a momentum killing interception.
Corey Graham excels at sticking to the back hip of receivers running shallow routes. This task is not an easy one, as he needs to stick with shifty, intermediate receivers and play the ball. It’s my opinion that his solid man coverage in the slot allowed the Ravens to Cover-0 blitz much more during their Playoff run than during the majority of the regular season. Where Graham’s game begins to break down is when he defends receivers up the seam or down the sideline:
Graham’s assignment on this play is the same as the previous breakdown; man coverage on the slot receiver.
Graham and Williams do a good job communicating and stick to their original matchups throughout the legal pick play. Even in tighter quarters (bunch formations) Graham rarely struggled to maintain his assignment and this example is no different.
Problems for Graham begin once Moss directs his shoulders vertically. Santana Moss gets a step and Graham can’t make up ground, he just simply lacks that next gear. The ball eventually lands incomplete (luckily for the Ravens) but only because the ball was late coming out and slightly underthrown.
This is a weakness of Graham’s and it could become an issue if teams use speedier receivers up the seam (a shorter throw) as evidenced in the Conference Championship when Graham got burned by Welker on a double-move down the seam.
Graham getting his uniform dirty
In the beginning of the year when Graham came onto the field as a Nickel corner to play the slot, he didn’t play the run particularly well. He seemed apprehensive about taking on lineman (relatively), and it didn’t appear that he wanted to get his nose dirty. Once Graham took on a greater workload as a starter, I saw his attitude start to shift.
Graham began to play the run more aggressively and sifted through the “trash” to make tackles on the edge with more regularity. He is no Webb in this sense (few are) but his tenacious side began to shine through, which can only lead to a greater role in this defense due to slot corners necessarily needing to be sturdy on the edge against run plays.
When aligning in the slot, the Ravens took advantage of his proximity to the QB by blitzing him off the edge:
Corey Graham was very effective at disguising blitzes as this image suggests. His outside alignment on the slot receiver doesn’t tip his hand in the slightest.
Suggs (#55) slants toward the left guard from his outside alignment leaving Graham one-on-one with the left tackle Castonzo. As it (hopefully) shows in these slides, Graham uses Castonzo’s exaggerated lateral movement to cut inside of him and pick up the sack on Luck.
This was Graham’s lone sack of the year but he did pressure the QB on 13% of his pass rushes last year. Depending on how much slot-play Graham sees next season once Webb returns, I can see Graham playing a big role in the Ravens zone blitz or Amoeba packages.
Corey Graham didn’t get the credit he deserved for his role in the secondary. I think there are several reasons for this:
Altogether Corey Graham is sagacious in his approach to the game but, it doesn’t hinder him from excelling as a skilled man-coverage slot corner with a hint of nastiness that we are just seeing the beginnings of. His fit in this defense is as a Nickel corner with a potential to start on the outside if Jimmy Smith struggles or if Webb transitions to a safety role.
Major League Baseball is a unique sport because of the lack of a salary cap. As a result, there is a much larger gap between what the most prosperous clubs spend on their teams and what those in the bottom rung of revenues spend. To put the spending into context consider how MLB stacks up against its bigger competitor: the NFL.
Discuss this post on the BSL Forums here!
The difference between the biggest spender (the Denver Broncos) and the smallest spender (Cincinnati Bengals) is roughly $33 Million. This is a function of there being a salary cap that limits the spending of the biggest budget teams.
In Major League Baseball, the difference between the biggest spenders (the New York Yankees) and the smallest (Houston Astros) is a slightly larger $202 Million. The Yankees spend roughly $6 Million more per player than the Astros. That figure is even a little misleading because the Yankees massive salary is spread across 33 players (so far this season) while the Astros have only had 27 players count thus far.
The key to running a baseball team well is getting a good bang for your buck, regardless of your budget. The image below shows how teams across MLB compare to the league average and one another:
As you can see, there are a few outliers that likely pull the league average up. The Yankees (NYA) and Dodgers (LAN) for example have salaries north of $220 Million, more than double the league average. On the other hand, the Astros (HOU) and Marlins (MIA) boast salaries below $40 Million, the opposite end of the spectrum.
So how do the Orioles stack up against competitors? In the American League East, the Orioles come in second to Rays when it comes to bang for their buck. In order to determine how wisely teams use their money, I took their committed 2013 salaries, and figured out how much they’ve used to this point in the season. In the O’s case, 43.8% of the season is over with, meaning they’ve effectively spent $40 Million and change of their total $92.2 Million in commitments for 2013. Dividing that number by the number of wins each club has gives you their cost per win ($/Win) below:
This, to me anyway, is impressive. The O’s may be second in the division to the Red Sox, but they are currently paying almost $700,000 less per win to get to the 40-win plateau.
All of this may not seem like a big deal, but the reality of the situation is that not every team has the luxury of revenues in the billions like the New York Yankees. Every team operates within a budget to one degree or another. For some it is closer to the luxury tax threshold, and for others it is tied closely to their annual revenues. For every LA Dodgers (salaries are up 128% over last season) there is a Tampa Bay Rays (salaries are ‘down’ 1.5%). While Tampa Bay takes every effort to keep their salaries consistent from year to year, teams like the Dodgers can more than double their salaries after the signing of a new TV deal (and new ownership).
One benefit of keeping your cost per win low is that you can then spend that money in other areas of the club. Teams like the Rangers, Cardinals, Athletics, and Rays have built competitive teams by managing salaries, allowing them to spend savings on the farm system, scouting, player development, etc. O’s fans should be ecstatic to see the club doing well once again with getting a good bang for their buck.
For the Orioles to be competitive, it will take a lot of things going their way. One way they can help themselves is for Dan Duquette to continue finding valuable yet cheap players (Miguel Gonzalez for example) who provide a lot of surplus value to the club. This will go a long way when the team looks into locking up young stars like Matt Wieters of Manny Machado. Keep an eye on this in the coming years, because while salaries may not get up to that magical $100 Million dollar mark as quickly as fans like, it might just mean that the team is focusing more on extracting value from the guys they can get at discount rates. Surplus value is crucial, no matter where it comes from.
**All data from this post from Baseball Prospectus.