Faces are familiar, but changes likely for Ravens defense

At least 10 starters back, but team seeks upgrade at certain positions

February 27, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

In regard to the Ravens' defense, continuity doesn't preclude change.

The Ravens will bring back at least 10 of 11 starters on defense next season, but they expect to tinker with all phases. Over the next four months, the team could add a starter on the interior line, at outside linebacker and perhaps at safety.

"As we've proven in the past, anytime we can upgrade players on our defense, then we have a willingness to do it," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "One of the things that we were able to do this season was to evaluate the team and say, `Are those 10 of 11 good enough to start on a Super Bowl-winning defense?' "

The only constant likely will be the 3-4 defensive scheme (three linemen and four linebackers), although the coaching staff is willing to return to a 4-3 if the players better fit that alignment. The Ravens were ranked 22nd in defense -- but 10th in yards allowed per play -- in their first season away from the 4-3 scheme.

"The 3-4 has more latitude," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "But you just have to be very careful in free agency and in the draft to get too married to a specific type of system. It's always better to take your personnel and marry a system that accentuates their positives. We're young enough where we're still in the stages of what our personality is going to be, particularly on the defensive side, based on what comes to us this year and the year after."

When free agency opens tomorrow, the only Ravens defensive starter on the market will be outside linebacker Cornell Brown. Team officials are scheduled to talk to Brown's agent within five days.

Brown, who turns 28 next month, rejuvenated his career as a solid run-stopping linebacker after not playing football in 2001. Signed in training camp, he went on to start 14 games and finished as the team's ninth-leading tackler.

Unlike previous seasons, the Ravens could have more competition for Brown because of their growing coaching tree. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio -- both of whom have coached Brown -- may have an interest in him.

"Having brought him back and him playing well, I'm sure that will be a factor [for a larger market for Brown]," Billick said. "Ultimately, it comes down to money. We would love to have Cornell back and I think he would like to come back."

If Brown can't be re-signed, the Ravens could tap into free agency, where there will be quality linebackers available in what is considered a weak free-agent market. Outside linebackers who will be available include the Texans' Jeff Posey, the Eagles' Shawn Barber and the Seahawks' Anthony Simmons.

It's also possible defensive end Adalius Thomas could be switched back to outside linebacker. Thomas experimented briefly at playing linebacker during offseason camps last year before moving back to the line.

Other changes could occur on the line and in the secondary.

The Ravens like overachieving nose tackle Kelly Gregg, but they probably will be looking for an upgrade. The team could scan free agency for a veteran like Tennessee's John Thornton or use a first-round pick to draft Kentucky's Dewayne Robertson or Miami's William Joseph.

"Clearly, the defensive line has to be a priority in terms of adding both depth and possibly starters," Billick said. "But we feel good about the young guys we have."

In the secondary, the Ravens could add a safety from free agency like New Orleans' Sammy Knight or Tampa Bay's Dexter Jackson to add more of a veteran presence. The team also could move Gary Baxter to safety if cornerback Tom Knight rebounds from a hamstring injury or if another cornerback is signed.

With the defense still a work in progress this offseason, the Ravens feel confident that they can build a defense reminiscent to the ones from 1999 to 2001.

"From a personnel side of it, there were some games [last season] we would have won if we had the caliber of defense we had back then," Newsome said. "That's the measuring stick."

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