Sanders due to sign with Ravens today

Ex-Pro Bowl cornerback to make comeback at 37, join Ravens' secondary

Debut likely in season opener

McAlister ends holdout, reports in good shape

August 31, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Upon reporting to the Ravens yesterday after a monthlong absence, a sleek Chris McAlister explained how he kept in shape by staying on a strict diet of egg whites, chicken and fish.

The return of the team's best cornerback, however, is only an appetizer on the Ravens' plate this week.

The main course is due to arrive today, when Deion Sanders is scheduled to make his much-anticipated entrance into the Ravens' practice facility in Owings Mills.

The seven-time Pro Bowl cornerback will end his three-year retirement at the age of 37 and join the Ravens as their nickel back (fifth defensive back). Known as "Prime Time" - the nickname he gave himself for repeatedly making big plays on national television - Sanders is expected to take a physical this morning and sign a one-year, incentive-laden contract.

"He's definitely the greatest in his era and one of the best to ever play the game," said McAlister, who seemed to field more questions about Sanders than himself during his first news conference.

"There's so much you can learn from a Deion Sanders, like a Rod Woodson when he was here. These are the type of guys that can take a young DB [defensive back] and make him grow up mentally, and mature him, and prepare him for situations that he otherwise wouldn't get without having the experience himself."

Under this timetable, Ravens officials said Sanders will be ready to play in the season opener in Cleveland on Sept. 12.

"He's in good shape," coach Brian Billick said. "I don't have to run him in a 40 [-yard dash] to see that he's OK."

The addition of Sanders will answer the most pressing need on the Ravens' defense. It also prompted this question from cornerback Gary Baxter:

"Where are teams going to throw the ball? With Chris and Deion, we believe we're No. 1. I believe that in my heart."

Sanders, who hasn't played since 2000, is expected to complement, not carry, this defense. The Ravens finished a franchise-best No. 4 in the NFL against the pass last season, allowing 175.3 passing yards a game.

The Ravens will continue to start McAlister and Baxter at the corners and Ed Reed and Will Demps at the safety positions. When Sanders enters the game in passing situations (likely 25 to 30 snaps a game), he will cover one of the outside receivers, and Baxter will move inside to handle the slot receiver.

In what should put them in select company, the Ravens' secondary will include two Pro Bowl talents (McAlister and Reed) and a likely future Hall of Famer (Sanders).

"It could be the best in the game right now," McAlister said of the secondary. "Even coming out of retirement, he [Sanders] is a lot more valuable and experienced than a lot of corners in the league today. It's all a matter of his conditioning level, and I'm pretty sure he wouldn't come back unless he felt he could go out there and play the game the way he's used to."

Sanders already has made a contribution to the Ravens.

After Baxter was beaten by Terrell Owens for an 81-yard touchdown catch in Philadelphia on Aug. 20, he was soon on the phone with Sanders, getting tutored on cover skills and having a positive mind-set.

"This guy has been in every position a cornerback could ever be in," Baxter said. "For me and Chris, this is a great opportunity for us to get into his hip pocket."

Meanwhile, McAlister reported to the Ravens showing little frustration over his contract dispute and few extra pounds. It was estimated that he is sporting less than 7 percent body fat.

While missing all of training camp and the first three preseason games, McAlister trained on his own, running a couple of hours in the morning and lifting weights in the afternoon. His absence was to protest being named the team's franchise player for a second straight year.

After signing his one-year, $7.1 million contract, he said he is focused on the season, leaving the business side of negotiating a long-term deal to his agent.

"I feel fresh right now, mentally and physically," McAlister said. "I think I need the two weeks before Cleveland. I don't want to walk out there, and the first person I hit is someone in a Cleveland Browns jersey."

The Ravens' first-round pick in 1999 lived up to expectations as a shutdown cornerback last season.

Over the final three months of the regular season, he silenced such top receivers as Denver's Rod Smith, Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith, St. Louis' Torry Holt, Miami's Chris Chambers and Owens, then with San Francisco.

That breakthrough season earned him his first Pro Bowl invitation, and, according to McAlister, 27, probably not his last.

"I feel like I'm just getting started," McAlister said. "It's just like a guy winning one Super Bowl - he never thinks that one Super Bowl is enough. There's so much more for me to do and accomplish in this game. I'm far from over."

Next for Ravens

Preseason matchup: Ravens (2-1) at New York Giants (1-2)

Site: Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

When: Thursday, 7 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 45, Comcast SportsNet/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

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