Ravens pick off their man

Cornerback McAlister among `elite' seven, will start with Starks

Billick: It was `no-brainer'

Ravens likely to move Woodson to safety

April 18, 1999|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

The 15-minute clock was running on the Arizona Cardinals at the No. 8 overall position in the NFL draft yesterday, and the hearts of every member of the Ravens' front office and scouting staffs were pounding with every second.

Then the phone rang and all the tension was relieved.

Within the next 30 minutes, Arizona took Ohio State receiver David Boston and Detroit selected linebacker Chris Claiborne, clearing the way for the Ravens to select one of the players they coveted most in University of Arizona corner- back Chris McAlister with the No. 10 pick.

In addition to adding McAlister, the Ravens acquired quarterback Tony Banks from the St. Louis Rams for a fifth-round pick in this draft and a seventh-round selection in 2000. The Ravens also sent backup quarterback Eric Zeier to Tampa Bay for a sixth-round choice this afternoon.

This is the second straight year the Ravens have selected a cornerback in the first round, but unlike University of Miami cornerback Duane Starks, who was also taken in the No. 10 position a year ago, the Ravens had rated McAlister the fifth-best player in college football last season.

He also was the final player in a group of seven the Ravens had rated as "elite" before possibly trading out of the No. 10 position. The other six were Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch, Oregon quarterback Akili Smith, Miami running back Edgerrin James, Texas running back Ricky Williams, Georgia cornerback Champ Bailey and N.C. State receiver Torry Holt.

But the Ravens knew they were going to get McAlister once Arizona officials phoned to say they were going to make a selection and not trade with the Minnesota Vikings, who also wanted McAlister. The Ravens knew Detroit wasn't going to make a deal with the Vikings, an NFC Central foe, and plus the Ravens had an ace card on their side in talks with Detroit.

The ace was owner Art Modell.

"Last year we took Randy Moss, who dropped," said Brian Billick, the former Minnesota offensive coordinator and the Ravens' first-year coach. "Chris McAlister was in a similar scenario. He was a guy we rated very highly and when they drop like that you can't pass on him. He got pushed to 10. We hoped he could. I don't know if anybody believed he would. But the fact that he was there was a no-brainer for us."

McAlister, 6 feet, 199 pounds, had 18 interceptions at Arizona and is only the seventh player in college football history to return a kickoff, punt and interception for a score in the same season.

He will start at one cornerback opposite of Starks and his addition will allow the Ravens to move veteran cornerback Rod Woodson inside to one safety along with fellow safety Kim Herring. McAlister's arrival also puts some pressure on third-year cornerback DeRon Jenkins to make the roster.

Woodson did not return phone calls yesterday, and Jenkins has yet to sign his tendered $429,000 offer as a restricted free agent.

"Quite honestly, I don't like the situation," said Jenkins, who came in to replace Starks at the end of two games last season. "I know it directly affects me, just like last year when they got Duane. It's definitely frustrating, especially since I was starting to play well last year. But I still have a job and I still have to perform. I know if we drafted McAlister, that was going to be the situation. You don't draft a guy at 10 and not play him. I don't think this league was intended to be fair. I thought we needed other things more than a cornerback."

"Coaches always want options and [McAlister] gives us a few," said Billick. "It allows us to use Rod Woodson differently on first and second downs compared to third down. It affects our nickel package especially with a lot of teams going to three-receiver sets to stretch the defense."

Modell was involved in selecting McAlister because he is good friends with Detroit owner William Clay Ford, who owed him a favor. Back in 1997, the Ravens had the No. 4 pick and Detroit was at No. 5. The Ravens were getting a lot of calls to trade down because teams were interested in selecting cornerback Bryant Westbrook.

But Clay called Modell on draft day and Modell assured him he was staying at No. 4 and the Ravens would select Florida State defensive end Peter Boulware. The Lions then took Westbrook.

"We knew Detroit was getting a lot of calls and I asked him to give us the last crack at it," said Modell. "He then told me we were taking Claiborne and McAlister is yours. Then he called me back later and said, `Sadly, this kind of relationship doesn't exist in the NFL anymore.' "

The Ravens had several opportunities to trade down yesterday. Miami called. So did Denver, Tennessee, Dallas and Kansas City. The Ravens even explored moving up in the draft when the Indianapolis Colts selected James with the No. 4 overall pick ahead of Williams, the Heisman Trophy winner.

But New Orleans was too quick surrendering their entire 1999 draft to select Williams at No. 5 in a deal with the Washington Redskins.

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