Knight key to Baxter's '03 position

Ravens' late-season signee could start at cornerback

January 07, 2003|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Gary Baxter will not campaign to remain at the position he played all season. The Ravens cornerback figures his play, especially in the final game against the Pittsburgh Steelers nine days ago, pleads enough of a case to discourage a possible move to safety.

He does, however, have an opinion.

"I'm not going to get caught up in this corner-safety thing," said Baxter, whose 6-foot-2, 204-pound frame is more suited to safety. "I play the game regardless of where they put me. I would prefer to play cornerback because I have grown into the position and I love it. I learned a lot this year and am feeling so comfortable there."

Baxter had his best game in the 34-31 loss to the Steelers. Matched up primarily against Plaxico Burress, Baxter, with help from safeties and linebackers, held Pittsburgh's second-leading receiver to 52 yards on three catches.

The key to what could be a shake-up in the secondary next season is a player who did not play a down this season.

Cornerback Tom Knight, a former Arizona Cardinals first-round pick who joined the Ravens on Dec. 5 after signing a two-year contract, spent the final four games on the inactive list, primarily rehabilitating a hamstring injury during practice.

If Knight can display the ability that made him the ninth pick in the 1997 draft, Baxter may have to move to remain a starter.

"Whether Gary stays or moves, it only does him good because the most difficult of those positions is corner, from physical skills and an understanding to play," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "As is the case for any player, you try to utilize his strengths as much as you can.

"Right now, it's safe to say that he's a corner, and if nothing changes, that is where he is. He's very capable and confident. I'll say this, he had probably his best game against Pittsburgh, which is a nice way to go if you are going to finish the season."

Knight started 53 games in five seasons with the Cardinals but never lived up to his lofty draft status. With former Cardinals and current St. Louis Rams cornerback Aeneas Williams, one of the premier players at his position the past 10 years, on the other side, Knight was often the target of other teams.

He could find himself in the same predicament once Chris McAlister re-signs or is designated the franchise player with the Ravens. But with a change of venue and a change in defensive scheme, the team is banking on a change in production from Knight.

"I'm anxious to see where [Knight] is after the injury," Nolan said. "That's the biggest unknown about him is how is he going to come back after the injury? That could be a real plus for us if Tom can play and at what level. Is he one of the best four? Then maybe he moves to corner and Gary moves inside."

The team plans to have a decision made before minicamp in April. If Baxter plays alongside Ed Reed, that would push Anthony Mitchell, who is a restricted free agent and started the last four games of the season, out of the lineup. Such a change might also prove risky to a secondary that got better as the season progressed and was even steadier once Mitchell was inserted in the lineup.

The Ravens set a franchise record and led the conference with 25 interceptions. Mitchell, who replaced a worn-down Will Demps, had an interception in each of the last two games.

Mitchell is a a restricted free agent. The Ravens can match any team's offer to him and would be awarded a draft pick if he left, so it is likely that Mitchell will sign a one-year tender. Demps, as an exclusive-rights free agent, will also be back.

"As long as they allow me, I'll be back as a Raven next season," Mitchell said.

The team also will have to decide whether to re-sign veteran nickel back James Trapp. Trapp signed a one-year contract last offseason and, if he returns, would likely have to accept the same deal. Dime back Chad Williams is under contract next season.

"We led the AFC in picks," Trapp said. "Our average passing yards per game was right around 220. It's great to have a bunch of young guys work hard every down.

"I didn't know what to expect out of those guys. But after working with them in training camp and seeing their attention to detail, I was like, we are going to be pretty good."

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