McAlister gets chance to be return man

Starting cornerback seeks to increase marketability

August 12, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The Ravens won't be extending a new contract to cornerback Chris McAlister anytime soon, but they have offered him a highly sought-after incentive.

In the next three preseason games, McAlister will be given the chance to win the punt returner's job. He has been lobbying for this since being drafted 10th overall in 1999.

"If I think he's the best at it, he will be our punt returner," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Now, [Lamont] Brightful looked pretty good at it the other night. Chris has to legitimately beat the guy out. But he's going to be given every opportunity to do it."

Brightful, a sixth-round pick in this year's NFL draft, got the upper hand in Friday's preseason opener. He averaged 18.3 yards on three returns; McAlister ran back his only return 6 yards.

Heading into the final year of his contract, McAlister believes adding punt returns to his resume will put him in an elite class as an unrestricted free agent.

"If I go out and do well -- which I intend on doing -- it's going to send my stock through the roof," McAlister said. "It's a big motivation for me."

As a senior at the University of Arizona, McAlister ran back five punts for an average of 20.8 yards and scored on a 65-yard return. He was only the seventh player in college football history to return a kickoff, punt and interception for touchdowns in the same season.

The Ravens consider returning punts less of an injury risk than kickoffs. But the Ravens would pull McAlister from returning punts against teams they think would try to knock out a starting cornerback.

McAlister is scheduled to earn $814,625 in the final year of his deal and has yet to hear from the Ravens about locking him up long term. If the Ravens reach a restructured agreement with linebacker Peter Boulware, they could keep McAlister around for another season by slapping the franchise-player tag on him.

That way, the team could keep McAlister from becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2003 and would have to only give a one-year deal equal to the average salary of the league's five highest-paid cornerbacks.

"I don't know what's going to happen," McAlister said. "It's pretty much up to [the Ravens] .... to make that move."

Ravens officials said they could not extend the contracts of McAlister or their two restricted free agents -- right tackle Edwin Mulitalo and receiver Brandon Stokley -- until they gain salary cap room from reworking Boulware's deal. If they don't get cap space this season, the Ravens don't plan to let them leave at season's end.

"Our No. 1 priority has been and will always be getting those guys done," Billick said.

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