Ravens rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey had played just a few dozen snaps in his NFL career when he replaced Jimmy Smith for a series early in the second quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 4.
Humphrey immediately found himself staring across the line of scrimmage at All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger noticed the matchup, too, and tested the rookie right away by lofting a deep ball down the left sideline intended for Brown. But Humphrey ran stride for stride with Brown, and the pass fell incomplete.
If that was Humphrey's welcome-to-the-NFL test from Roethlisberger, he passed with flying colors, and he has continued to do so in what has been an impressive first season.
"That was definitely crazy," Humphrey said as he recalled staring down Brown. "You can only get better when you're going against some of the best guys.
"... I like to be in those types of matchups. Those are, I think, what makes a great corner."
Entering the bye week, Humphrey had 15 tackles and five pass breakups, and perhaps most significantly, he stepped in capably while Jimmy Smith dealt with a nagging Achilles injury. The lack of secondary depth had been a critical shortcoming for the Ravens in recent years.
"I don't think he is a typical rookie," said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who noted Humphrey has impressed since his first organized team activity workouts. "All we had to do was really see once the season started if there would be a drop-off, and I don't think there has been."
The 6-foot, 197-pound Humphrey has long arms, is physical at the line of scrimmage and breaks well on the ball.
"You can see his press ability is really good," Smith said. "The more he gets in the game, the better he is."
And as Humphrey showed against Brown, he has been able to stay with receivers deep. His speed was never in doubt, as he was a state champion sprinter and hurdler in high school. But there was concern his eagerness would leave him susceptible to double moves and deep passes. None of those concerns has materialized.
"He's got all the attributes, not just the physical ability but the mental side," said Ravens veteran safety Eric Weddle, who noted Humphrey, 21, sits next to him in meetings and soaks up advice. "He's a student of the game. He wants to be good. He doesn't have an ego. It's refreshing to see a young guy who came in, who's talented ... but is humble enough to be able to be taught and to learn the game."
There was never any doubt that Humphrey had the pedigree; his father, Bobby, played four years in the NFL and was a Pro Bowl running back for the Denver Broncos in 1990. Like his father, Humphrey played collegiately at Alabama, where the younger Humphrey twice played in the national championship game before declaring for the draft after his sophomore season. And like his father, Humphrey was a first-round draft pick.
But there was at least modest surprise when the Ravens selected Humphrey with the No. 16 overall pick.
After all, the Ravens had already signed Brandon Carr to bolster the secondary. Smith was entrenched as one starting cornerback and emerging slot corners Tavon Young and Maurice Canady were on the roster as well. The prevailing opinion was that the Ravens would use their first draft pick to address an offense that had struggled for much of the 2016 season and was losing wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. to retirement.
Three receivers linked to the Ravens in many mock drafts -- Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross -- all were claimed in the top 10 picks, long gone by the time the Ravens were on the clock. Alabama tight end O.J. Howard was still on the board, but in keeping with a central theme of the Ravens' offseason activity, they focused on defense and selected Humphrey.
They also kept with another theme -- mining talent from Alabama, where general manager Ozzie Newsome had been a star player. The Ravens have drafted nine players from Alabama, the most from any school.
"He was by far the best player that we were going to take," Newsome said the night Humphrey was drafted.
Humphrey said he wasn't expecting to be drafted by the Ravens given their perceived depth at cornerback, and he acknowledged he has heard some of the chatter criticizing the Ravens for bypassing Howard and other available options on offense. That criticism only grew as the Ravens' offense sputtered during the first half of the season, but Humphrey said he doesn't take it personally.
"I'm getting playing time here, so I guess it all worked out," he said.
Humphrey got off to a slow start, though, missing extensive time in the preseason while dealing with a hamstring injury. That set off alarm bells among Ravens fans, who had watched as 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman was injured in training camp and proceeded to miss his entire rookie season.
"It was disappointing," Humphrey said of that training camp inactivity, "because I couldn't be out there. ... I'm the first-round pick and everybody wants to see me play, and I felt like I hadn't shown my teammates that I can play."
Once the hamstring healed, it didn't take long for Humphrey to assert himself. He played nine defensive snaps during the season opener, and his workload gradually increased. By midseason, Humphrey was playing extensively, with Carr moving inside to play the slot at times. The idea was to blanket the field with the Ravens' best corners, and by midseason Humphrey had already established himself as one of their best corners.
"He is fast, physical, big, he uses his hands, and he is into the game plan," Pees said earlier this season. "He has all those things that you want a DB to possess. I think that he is just a really good player, a really good talent."
Issue 239: November 2017
Originally published Nov. 15, 2017