Baxter's talent may make this draft a hit for Ravens

April 29, 2001|By Mike Preston

AMONG THE SEVEN players the Ravens drafted last weekend, Baylor defensive back Gary Baxter may be the most intriguing. He was good enough to be taken in the first round, but lasted to the second. He has the potential to be a starter within three years, but could become one by next season.

The Ravens can afford to be patient with Baxter because they already have dominant, young talent in cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Duane Starks, and a Hall of Famer at safety in Rod Woodson, whenever he and the Ravens decide to close the deal on a new free-agent contract.

But if Baxter develops as quickly as Arizona State tight end Todd Heap, the team's No. 1 pick, then the defending Super Bowl champions' 2001 draft will be considered successful. How could anyone argue differently? The Ravens would have had the last selection in each round that they had a pick and still found two starters.

Well, the draft experts can already mail in the verdict on Baxter. Wait until you see this kid play. He is not the caliber of McAlister, who turned a lot of heads instantly on his first day at minicamp. Project is the right term for Baxter, but all the physical tools are there.

Wait about two to three years from now when he adds another 10 to 15 pounds to his 202-pound frame. Or when he has completed his transition from cornerback to safety. And when he has learned the Ravens' defensive schemes.

Can't you hear the house announcer now: "Now starting at free safety, Gary Baxter."

"Our scouts did a good job on him," said Donnie Henderson, one of the team's two secondary coaches. "I went down to take a look at him on March 27. It was pouring down raining, and he still looked impressive. There are two things I like about him. Obviously, he is a size guy who can run. The other is he is very bright-eyed, which tells you he has a chance."

Baxter has been absorbing as much as he can in the first two days of the Ravens' three-day minicamp. He looks and plays like a rookie, which means he looks out of place.

Or is in places where he doesn't belong.

And like most rookies, Baxter has to adapt to the speed of the game. This is the NFL, not the Big 12 Conference. If you wait and react too long, the game passes you by. And if that happens often, you become unemployed

There was always traffic on his corner in college, but now Baxter has to learn to play in space. A lot of this weekend has been nerve rattling and one giant blur.

"Yeah, I've been a little nervous because I didn't know what to expect," said Baxter. "It's a family atmosphere here, but it's pretty quiet at times. These guys take their jobs very seriously. They have told me not to put too much pressure on myself.

"But the pro game is so fast, and here I am making adjustments from the corner to safety," he said. "I already know the coverages; the thing that is throwing me off is the calls they make once they line up. I'm going to have to remember these things and look them up in the playbook. I consider myself a student of the game. I'm excited."

Too bad the rest of the league wasn't feeling that way about Baxter. Despite being one of the most physically gifted defensive backs in the draft, his stock dropped for some strange reasons.

Was it because NFL teams couldn't figure out whether to play him at safety or cornerback?

Was it because Baylor finished 2-9 and gave up 36 points a game?

What?

"Here was a guy who was physical enough to play safety, but had enough foot speed to play on the corner," said Henderson. "People were confused where to play him."

Baxter said he was surprised that he lasted until 62nd overall pick.

"I didn't think I would drop this far," he said. "But God has a plan for everything. I have no complaints right now. I want to help the team in any way I can."

Baxter can help the Ravens in several ways.

First of all, he'll probably be part of the team's extra-man coverage. He could play over the slot, or inside as an extra linebacker. At Baylor, he was very physical near the line of scrimmage and solid in run support. He finished with 202 career tackles.

He also has the ability and size to re-route receivers in press coverage. The closing speed was evident Friday when wide receiver Jermaine Lewis had a few steps on him on a deep route, but Baxter made up enough ground to knock the ball down. Baxter knocked down a record 50 passes in college. Baxter also will help out on special teams as a coverage player.

Baxter can do all of those things while learning the defenses. His learning curve should improve when Woodson returns to help him out. Woodson underwent the same transition three years ago.

"He is versatile and has size," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel. "His value is that he can play all the positions Marvin [defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis] wants him to on defense. Overall, I think he has a pretty bright future."

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