Better Ravens secondary days late and veteran short

August 06, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

One more veteran, and maybe the Ravens could feel comfortable. One more corner or safety, and maybe they could claim that their secondary is significantly improved, instead of just hoping for the best.

They gave Rod Woodson a $3 million signing bonus. They reached for Duane Starks with the 10th pick of the draft. And still, they face significant questions at every position in their secondary, both at safety and cornerback.

Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, said the team is more than $2 million under the salary cap, leaving enough flexibility to add players before the Sept. 6 season opener against Pittsburgh.

But he also said that signing a corner is "less of a priority right now" -- a curious stance, considering that the Ravens spent much of the off-season trying to land a Tyrone Poole or Jimmy Hitchcock.

They were 28th against the pass last season, yet they're banking on four young defensive backs (Starks, DeRon Jenkins and second-year safeties Kim Herring and Ralph Staten) and two creaky veterans (Woodson and Stevon Moore).

Woodson conceded last week that the secondary has "a long way to go." The addition of Starks should help, but this still isn't a playoff- caliber unit -- not even close.

"We are better than we were last year," Newsome said. "The talent that we have, the understanding the guys have within the system -- we're better in the secondary. Are we good enough to be in the top five or top 10? No, we're not."

Ideally, the Ravens will get a fierce rush from their front seven, and their new two-back offense will keep the defense off the field. But at some point, opposing quarterbacks will find the secondary. They always do, don't they?

As much effort as the Ravens exerted to improve at cornerback, they still didn't match the commitment of some teams, still didn't go far enough.

The San Francisco 49ers essentially traded Woodson for the Ravens' Antonio Langham, a cornerback eight years younger. And Starks will face a steep learning curve in the NFL, no matter what his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, says.

You could defend the Ravens' refusal to overpay for free-agent corners Doug Evans and Jeff Burris, to trade a second-round draft pick for Poole, to gamble on 33-year-old Terry McDaniel.

But they bungled the Hitchcock trade by failing to act before the draft. Hitchcock, a restricted free agent with New England who was traded to Minnesota, wanted to sign with a team that would let him start. That was not a sure thing in Baltimore once Starks was drafted.

Put it all together, and Team Modell was far more conservative than, say, the Indianapolis Colts, who committed $8 million in signing bonuses to Burris and Carlton Gray, then signed Poole to a lucrative four-year extension after acquiring him from Carolina.

"You can never have enough great cover guys," Colts GM Bill Polian said.

The Ravens have none -- at least not at this stage of their careers.

One more veteran corner, and Starks and Jenkins could be third and fourth on the depth chart to start the season. One more veteran safety, and the Ravens wouldn't be down to two unproven players if Moore isinjured.

A year ago, they resisted signing a center following the injury to Wally Williams, and started 3-1 with Quentin Neujahr. But the offensive line was a strong unit that could adjust to the loss of one player. The secondary is not.

Moore is coming off surgery on both knees, and coach Ted Marchibroda said his progress has been "a real surprise to this point." But how long can he hold up? And can the Ravens trust the inconsistent Staten to step in?

Woodson, 33, is another question. The Ravens are his third team in three years. He's coming off a shaky postseason with San Francisco. He hasn't been the same player since undergoing surgery to repair his torn right anterior-cruciate ligament in 1995.

No doubt, Woodson will add experience and savvy and a more physical presence than Langham. But he might be better at safety than corner at this stage of his career, and if he gets hurt, the Ravens are left with Starks and Jenkins, backed up by John Williams and intriguing newcomer Tyrone Hughes.

Gulp.

Starks might be the next Darrell Green, but he's 5 feet 10 and 175 pounds. It's great that he's aggressive and fearless. But what happens when he tries to tackle big AFC Central backs like Jerome Bettis, Eddie George, and Corey Dillon?

Then there's Jenkins, the second-round bust who cost the Ravens three draft picks in 1996. Marchibroda said this is the best he has looked in three training camps. Let's see how he looks against Kordell Stewart and Mark Brunell.

Yes, the Ravens are improved. They opened 1996 with Isaac Booth at right corner and had no depth at safety behind Moore and Eric Turner. They opened 1997 with Langham and Donny Brady at the corners, Moore and Rondell Jones at safety.

This group is better, but it's still too thin, too full of questions. One more veteran, and maybe the Ravens could feel comfortable. But they haven't made the commitment. They haven't gone far enough.

Pub Date: 8/06/98

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