Photo courtesy of Vladimir Cherry/SMU athletics
Day two of the 2021 NFL Draft was more or less over. All projection sites had no SMU players projected to be drafted in days one or two.
But the Baltimore Ravens decided that with the penultimate pick of the third round, they wanted the 6-foot-0, 213-pound cornerback from Plano, Tex. So what, exactly, are the Ravens getting with Brandon Stephens?
Let’s break down the pick.
Stephens the Running Back
Stephens was originally a running back coming out of high school, a part of the class of 2016.
As a fringe three- to four-star, he held offers from several of the top programs in the nation, including Alabama, Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Texas, among others. He ultimately chose to commit to UCLA.
Stephens spent three seasons with UCLA, where he played in 21 games, and totaled 65 carries for 277 rushing yards and a touchdown. He also added 12 receptions for 108 receiving yards.
Stephens Bets on Himself
After redshirting the 2018 season and graduating, Stephens decided to transfer for his final two seasons of eligibility. Stephens reached out to SMU’s head coach, Sonny Dykes, about transferring. Much to everyone’s surprise, the now Raven bet on himself and decided to walk on and play a new position.
In case anyone is curious about what type of a risk this was, look up the cost of tuition at SMU. That’s an expensive bet for anyone, even before factoring in the fact he had never played cornerback before.
But he earned that scholarship at fall camp, right before the semester started.
Stephens Steps Up Early
In 2019, the physical corner stepped up in a big way, showing why he earned that scholarship. In his first game as a cornerback against Arkansas State, he had three pass deflections. You know a defender had a good game when he accounts for half of the entire game’s pass deflections.
However, the game that cemented Stephens as a no-doubt starter for the Mustangs came against TCU. The game that showed that SMU was for real, had one of Stephens’ best highlights of his collegiate career. A pass breakup to prevent a touchdown against first-round pick, Jalen Reagor, was one of multiple pass breakups in the game for Stephens.
He would go on to finish the season with 12 pass deflections, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 49 total tackles.
Stephens Earns No. 23
Every year, SMU awards someone with the No. 23. Typically, it is someone that embodies the culture the coaching staff is trying to instill in the team. Essentially, it goes to someone who is a leader on and off the field.
The reason No. 23 has this designation is because of former SMU Mustang, Jerry LeVias. LeVias was the first Black scholarship athlete in the Southwest Conference. It would definitely be well worth everyone’s time to do some research and take in his story. It’s one of bravery, resilience, and perseverance.
Despite being a transfer in only his second year with SMU, Stephens earned the right to don No. 23. This should be all that Ravens’ fans need to judge Stephens’ character.
Stephens Finishes Collegiate Career Strong
By the end of 2020, Stephens finished his SMU career with 22 pass deflections in 23 total games. Between 2019 and 2020, only Shemar Jean-Charles of Appalachian State had more pass deflections (25).
Against North Texas, he had a strong showing, coming down in the end zone with his lone career interception, where he showed some impressive ball skills. He also added two pass deflections and five total tackles.
Then against Memphis, he had three pass deflections. One of those saved a touchdown, and another saved a third down conversion down the stretch of a one-possession game.
Stephens would finish his collegiate career with 92 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one interception, one fumble recovery, and 22 pass deflections in just 23 games.
Stephens is Taken With Pick 104
Coming into the draft, there was some hype around Stephens’ potential. At 6-0 and 213 pounds, Stephens is the perfect size for an NFL cornerback. Add in that he ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, and it’s no wonder he was a fast riser in the draft process.
The word ‘raw’ is going to understandably and fairly be thrown around a lot. There are a lot of areas for improvement, but the beauty of Stephens’ game is that all of those areas are coachable.
Baltimore’s defensive coordinator, Wink Martindale, has been coaching defense for a long time – he started coaching the same year that Ferris Bueller was introduced to the world (1986).
If anyone has the credentials and experience to help sculpt Stephens’ amount of potential into an NFL starter, it’s Coach Martindale.
Strengths and Weaknesses?
First and foremost, he’s raw. Remember, he’s played cornerback for two years, and missed out on a year of spring practices for one of those years, thanks to COVID-19.
For what it’s worth, he didn’t have too many missed tackles in 2020, but the technique could be cleaned up a little.
As far as coverage goes, zone coverage ability will only go up with experience. It’s one thing for a cornerback when it’s ‘mano a mano’. In these cases, it’s about clamping one guy down for the duration of a play.
But zone can get tricky for someone new to cornerback. It requires almost all of the same skills of man coverage, but also requires the awareness of everyone that is, or could soon be, in your vicinity.
The final big thing that Stephens could improve upon is his ability to come down with interceptions. His pass deflection count shows he has a nose for the ball. But those pass deflections in the end zone mentioned above? All became touchdowns away from Stephens on the very next play.
Stephens’ high pass deflection count shows a good nose for the ball, as already mentioned.
He’s not afraid to get physical on a tackle either — in run or pass defense. You can’t teach his level of physicality at the corner spot.
Stephens has skills to be an elite special teamer, right away.
He has great agility for a guy his size.
Stephens gives up very few big plays. Maybe he got beat once or twice, but nothing egregious stands out from his SMU career. Some of his best tape came when he was in single coverage, defending a go route.
All weaknesses are coachable and should improve with experience.
Where Does Stephens Fit?
At worst, Stephens will be a consistent special teams piece the coaching staff won’t need to be concerned about screwing up.
Most likely, Stephens will not see much time on defense as a rookie. In the event of an injury or position change, of course, his spot on the depth chart could get pushed up sooner.
The Ravens have a solid trio of cornerbacks between Marcus Peters, Jimmy Smith, and Marlon Humphrey. Stephens looks to fit in as a solid rotational piece.
He has a great opportunity to learn a lot from some talented veterans and threaten a starting position as early as 2022.
Ravens fans will enjoy a cornerback who can elevate to break up a pass, isn’t afraid to get physical, and has 4.4 speed.
Also, how could you not like someone who’s Twitter bio has two things: “Bet On Yourself” and “FINAO” (Failure Is Not An Option)?
— SMU FootbaIl (@SMUFB) May 1, 2021