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Lardarius Webb Adapting To Role As New Ravens Safety

June 1, 2016
LONGTIME ED REED FAN LEARNING FROM ERIC WEDDLE

The play was a sneak preview into Lardarius Webb's new world.

During the Ravens' first week of organized team activity practices, Chris Matthews -- a big, tall wide receiver who would be physically tough for any defensive back to handle -- ran downfield with diminutive corner (and presumed starter) Shareece Wright in tow.

About 30 yards downfield, the ball arrived at the same spot at which the tandem did, but they had been joined by a third presence.

Webb knocked the ball away, fulfilling -- at least for one play -- the vision the coaching staff has for the eighth-year pro as he attempts to complete the conversion from cornerback to safety, which was slowly put into motion late last year.

For the 5-foot-10, 182-pound Webb, a cornerback since he was taken during the third round (88th overall) of the 2009 draft, the switch might seem like a drastic change. 

But Webb -- moved to the inside of the defense after surgeries on both knees slowed the early portion of his career -- did have some experience playing the position at the high school and collegiate levels, and the feeling he got from roaming center field and making plays has never truly left him.

"I feel like I've always been a safety anyway," Webb said. "I was a safety in high school and in college, [so] I really never played corner until I got to the [NFL]. It was a pride thing. I liked playing the position -- it's a competitive edge. I like being out there playing one-on-one and competing with some of the best wide receivers throughout the game. 

"But I love the safety [position]. It's a great transition; I'm loving it. I have more control of the defense. I like it." 

It is safeties and inside linebackers who are usually charged with making defensive calls and pre-snap checks. If he gets a chance to do that, Webb will be taking another step in the path of his longtime idol and former teammate, Ravens Ring of Honor safety Ed Reed.

Webb wears No. 21 because it was closest to Reed's No. 20, and the pair played alongside each other for five seasons, winning a Super Bowl together in 2012. 

Reed, with 64 career interceptions (61 as a Raven), sometimes wore the green dot on his helmet, meaning he had radio communication with the sidelines to set up formations.

Now, Webb or free-agent pickup Eric Weddle might have that responsibility, and the longtime San Diego Charger has taken over for Reed as far as teaching Webb the ropes.

"[Weddle is] a leader," Webb said. "He's going to be big for this defense -- for this team. He speaks up. I told him, 'We want Eric Weddle. Don't hold back. Don't be quiet. We want you. If you yelled when you were with the Chargers, I want you coming out here yelling. Just be yourself. Grow the beard back, because we want the beard. If that's who you were, grow the beard.' 

"He's growing it back. He's being himself, and we're loving it. It was a great move." 

Under more conventional thinking, Weddle would seem to be assuming the role as the strong safety, using his physicality to play closer to the line of scrimmage and to help make tackles on running plays.

That would leave the 30-year-old Webb to be the Reed-type center fielder, hoping to bait quarterbacks into making bad throws and hoping to pick them off. With only six interceptions and a minus-14 turnover ratio last year, Baltimore has made creating turnovers more of a priority.

However, Webb -- whose role is pivotal, considering his $9.5 million cap number -- has never been known for having the surest hands when it comes to interceptions. That has to improve for the position switch to make sense.

Yet, head coach John Harbaugh has enough faith in Webb's versatility to feel good about the move.

"[It means] a lot of versatility, for one thing," Harbaugh said of Webb. "He can play either safety spot. He can play obviously in the slot as a nickel player, and he can go out and cover as a corner. I think it really gives us some flexibility, with he and Eric [Weddle] both, moving guys around and disguising our defenses a little bit. 

"But also the fact that he played safety. He was a safety in college, so he's got a good feel back there, and I think his athleticism translates really well to being back in the deep end and getting over top of routes and trying to make plays on the ball." 

A lot of recent draft picks at safety haven't improved the quality at safety; rather, they have cluttered up the quantity.

Players such as Matt Elam, Terrence Brooks and Christian Thompson were hampered by either injuries or ineffectiveness, and Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski weren't with the team long enough to make a lasting impact.

On the free-agent market, Kendrick Lewis brought tenacity and a good work ethic to last year's squad, but the talent level just wasn't there.

But with Webb's move and Weddle's tutelage, the deep middle of the field might suddenly become the impenetrable fortress Reed created in Baltimore and Weddle duplicated in San Diego.

"It's going awesome," Webb said of the switch. "I'm enjoying it. I feel like I'm a natural at it."

For at least one OTA play, Webb appeared to be right.

Joe Platania has been covering professional football since 1994.