Ravens may put secondary first

Team ponders drafting cornerback in 1st round

April 12, 1999|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

As the Ravens begin the final week of preparations for the 1999 draft, there will be countless internal discussions about trading up from their No. 10 overall slot in the first round. There will be debate about which quarterback to choose, how far Texas running back Ricky Williams will drop in the draft and if Torry Holt is a better receiver than David Boston.

But the Ravens won't overlook possibly drafting a cornerback in the first round. It's not an exceptional year, said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, but cornerbacks such as Georgia's Champ Bailey and Arizona's Chris McAlister are considered top-15 picks, and Ohio State's Antoine Winfield, West Virginia's Charles Fisher and Clemson's Antwan Edwards are rated late first-round candidates.

Newsome has already confirmed that he spoke with veteran starting cornerback Rod Woodson late last season about moving to safety and Woodson agreed if the Ravens were committed to making the move. Newsome said that if the team decides to take a cornerback with the 10th pick, he would contact Woodson again to let him know about the decision.

"When I spoke with Rod about it, he said he was a team player and would do what is best for the team," said Newsome. "I think this year's crop of rookie cornerbacks are better than last year, but possibly not as good as two years ago with Shawn Springs and Bryant Westbook. There is the potential for four, possibly a fifth, in the first round. But there sure are two great ones."

The secondary has been a major problem for the Ravens since the team moved from Cleveland to Baltimore three years ago.

Until last season, the team never had two solid cornerbacks, going through players like Issac Booth, Donny Brady and Antonio Langham. The Ravens thought they had found answers last season when they signed Woodson and drafted University of Miami cornerback Duane Starks with the No. 10 overall pick.

Starks had a slightly better than average rookie season, starting eight games and finishing with 50 tackles and five interceptions -- second best on the team to Woodson's six. Woodson started off strong, but the strain from 12 previous NFL seasons seemed to show in the last four games. Woodson had 84 tackles, tied for fourth on the team.

But whenever the Ravens didn't get a lot of pressure on the quarterback, teams like Jacksonville would torch their secondary. The Ravens had the 24th-ranked pass defense in the league, allowing 224.5 yards a game.

If the Ravens draft McAlister, defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis could finally play the pressure defense he has been unable to use because of concern over exposing his cornerbacks.

"I think we always have to play defense based on talent, and you don't look at it any other way," said Lewis. "What we have acquired or drafted in the last few years has helped us to begin formulating the defense to where we want to be. You can't look at other teams and say, `I wish we could do that,' because you don't have the time."

Newsome said: "We would be able to play [Lewis'] scheme better. Duane would be in his second year, and we could get an impact player on the other side."

Bailey is the consensus top-rated cornerback, and many of the experts don't believe he will be available when the Ravens select in the first round. But McAlister isn't bad either.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper and the Sporting News rate McAlister just slightly behind Bailey. Bailey had 52 tackles last season, including seven sacks. He batted away seven passes and intercepted three. He also doubled as a wide receiver, catching 47 passes for 744 yards.

McAlister is a safety in a cornerback's body. He has good speed and turns and runs well, can make the tackle in the open field and has better-than-average closing speed. McAlister had 34 tackles last season, knocked down 15 passes, had five interceptions, blocked two kicks and averaged 29.5 yards on eight kickoff returns.

Possibly his biggest asset is the ability to take away opponents' big, physical receivers. Newsome and Phil Savage, Ravens director of scouting, have been equally impressed with McAlister.

"He is smooth, fluid and has tremendous ball skills," said Kiper. "What I noticed with McAlister is that he has the natural feel for game situations, knowing when is the right time to take a risk. That's an instinctive quality only the great ones possess."

Tomorrow: Profile of Chesapeake-BC graduate Lamar King from Saginaw Valley, one of the top defensive ends in the draft.

NFL draft

When: Saturday, noon-*10 p.m. (Rounds 1-3); Sunday, 11 a.m.-*5 p.m. (Rounds 4-7)

TV: ESPN (Saturday, noon-7 p.m.), ESPN2 (Saturday, 7 p.m.- conclusion); ESPN (Sunday, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.), ESPN2 (1 p.m.-conclusion)

Total selections: 253

First pick: Cleveland Browns

Ravens' picks: First round, 10th; second round, 42nd overall; fourth round, 105th, 129th; fifth round, 145th; seventh round, 216th

Time limits per team: Round 1, 15 minutes; Round 2, 10 minutes; Rounds 3-7, 5 minutes.

* approximation

Pub Date: 4/12/99

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