Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes avoided the rush and fired a third-down pass toward the sideline intended for Tyreek Hill. But Anthony Averett, who had lined up opposite Hill and stayed on him through his break toward the boundary, reached in with his right hand and broke up the play.

After tumbling to the turf, Averett popped up and waved his arms in a demonstrative “incomplete” signal as the M&T Bank Stadium crowd roared. Averett’s play forced a Chiefs punt, and the Ravens marched down the field on the ensuing possession for what proved to be the game-winning score in the Ravens’ thrilling 36-35 Week 2 victory.

That’s the type of play Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale had always expected Averett, a three-year backup, would make if given the chance. Now with Marcus Peters sidelined for the season by a torn ACL, Averett finally has his chance.

And considering Averett is in a contract year, it could be an extremely lucrative one.

Martindale has often declared that Averett has Pro Bowl potential and would start on virtually any team that didn’t have Peters and Marlon Humphrey, a pair of first-round draft picks and Pro Bowl cornerbacks, on the roster.

“[Martindale] says that all the time in front of the team,” Averett said. “I just smile and I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m glad he has confidence in me.’ … I got people that trust me to be out there and play. It makes me relax.”

Averett might not have the social media following of Humphrey or the outward swagger of Peters, but he plays with a quiet confidence. He said every aspect of his game has improved this year — technique, ball skills, film study, field awareness. It all came together on that pivotal play against Hill.

“Obviously, it’s Tyreek Hill, and I know they’re looking for him,” Averett explained. “I just knew I had to make a play for my team and, hey, I made it. Third down, money down.”

Through the first four games this season, Averett led the team with two interceptions — the first picks of his career — and four pass breakups.

Until this season, Averett had played only sporadically on defense, a backup to players such as Humphrey, Peters, Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr. Averett started seven games during his first three seasons.

This year, Averett is playing virtually every defensive snap.

“There’s nothing like game reps,” Averett said. “You can practice all the time, but the game reps, that’s what gets your mind going.”

Smith, whose transition to safety was made possible in part by Averett’s development, said, “We talk a lot about [how] being in a full-time role is a little different than spot playing. You kind of have to up your game in a lot of ways. You have to be a little bit more savvy. … He’s starting to learn and understand more and more things about playing corner every single play.”

Humphrey’s College Teammate

A native of Woodbury, N.J., Averett was a football and track star in high school who posted the top long jump in the country among high schoolers in 2013. The four-star recruit landed at Alabama, where he started alongside Humphrey in 2016.

Despite rolling to a 27-2 record and winning one national championship in two years as a starter at Alabama, Averett (5-foot-11, 178 pounds) generated only modest interest in a cornerback draft class that featured Denzel Ward and Jaire Alexander.

Averett said he expected to be drafted in the third round in 2018, but then had a humbling wait into the draft’s final day.

“It was definitely disappointing that second night,” Averett recalled. “Hey, it didn’t work out that way. It’s all about how you finish anyway, so I said, ‘Whoever gets me, they’re going to be proud about it.'”

The Ravens ultimately selected him with the 118th overall pick, the 13th cornerback selected that year. He was also the 10th Alabama player drafted by outgoing general manager Ozzie Newsome, the most from any school at the time. (Newsome selected Averett’s Crimson Tide teammate, center Bradley Bozeman, two rounds later.)

Humphrey pointed out that Averett’s career arc with the Ravens mirrored his time at Alabama as he climbed the ladder from special teams reserve to starting cornerback.

“Ant has always been a great player whenever I’ve been out there with him,” Humphrey said. “Any time I look over, I’ve always trusted he was going to do his job. … It’s cool to play with a guy you played with in college.”

Averett, the nephew of former Ravens offensive lineman Bryant McKinnie, acknowledged that there were times when he looked around the Ravens meeting room, saw Humphrey and Peters — both signed to contract extensions in the past couple of years — and wondered whether he would ever become a starter.

“Of course you think about it,” Averett said, “because I’m just a competitor. I think everybody wants to play, to be out there contributing. … Control what I can control and just play the cards, and things will fall the way they will fall.”

With a hoodie pulled up over his red braids, he nodded toward the practice fields and said in his soft-spoken voice, “Hey, it’s just a blessing to be out here playing in the NFL, really.”

Free Agency On The Horizon

Averett is set to become a free agent next spring, and general manager Eric DeCosta has made re-signing Ravens a central tenet of his roster-building philosophy. He has worked out new deals or extensions with more than 15 Ravens, including tight end Mark Andrews in September.

Averett, who turns 27 in November, would seem to fit the “ascending player” mold that Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti is willing to pay for. And in handing out hefty extensions to Humphrey, Peters and Tavon Young in the past three years, the Ravens have shown they value quality cornerbacks.

Yet there will only be so much money to go around, and as with other roster questions, quarterback Lamar Jackson’s contract status looms above all.

Jackson is in the final year of his rookie deal, but the Ravens have exercised a fifth-year option and both sides have said they expect a long-term deal to get done. It will surely be the largest contract in Ravens history, and its salary-cap impact will have a massive ripple effect on the rest of the roster. If an extension doesn’t happen and Jackson plays out his fifth-year option next year, his cap hit will jump from $3 million to $23 million.

The Ravens certainly know that with Jackson’s bill coming due, the better Averett plays, the less likely they will be able to afford him. Averett’s agent did not respond to a request to comment on any extension talks, and DeCosta hasn’t met with the media since the spring.

Averett said he is focused on his play on the field and not on his contract, but he acknowledged that, “Of course you know it’s there. It’s common sense. You can’t ignore it.”

“I would definitely love to stay here,” he added. “Hey, [the Ravens] drafted me. … I’m definitely a Raven in my heart, for sure. I love this organization.”

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Issue 271: October/November 2021

Originally published Oct. 20, 2021

Bo Smolka

See all posts by Bo Smolka. Follow Bo Smolka on Twitter at @bsmolka