A premium placed on cornerbacks

Ravens will be looking for someone to replace Webb, Washington

February 28, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Baltimore Sun reporter

INDIANAPOLIS — Of course the Ravens need a wide receiver. And sure, they'd love to get younger and more athletic at the tight end position in this draft.

But with the way the NFL game is changing so much the past few years, and with no way to magically heal anterior cruciate ligaments, there is one position Baltimore absolutely has to target at some point in this draft, and they're not even bothering to hide it.

Cornerback.

While there is still some truth to the adage that you need to run the ball to be successful in the NFL -- especially in the post-season -- 10 different quarterbacks threw for at least 4,000 yards last season, including Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, who faced one another in the Super Bowl. That smashed the old record of seven set in 2007.

And while the Jets and Ravens showed that defense and running the football are still reliable ways to win, the NFL is clearly becoming a passing league. Rule changes and the prevalence of spread offenses have put a premium on fast, athletic corners and safeties who can run and cover without making physical contact with wide receivers.

"The game is all about playing in space now," said Mike Lombardi, the former player personnel director for the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders. "It's basketball on grass. You have to have guys who can play in space."

The Ravens found one of those players last year in the third round in cornerback Lardarius Webb. But when he tore his ACL playing special teams late in the year, it suddenly made cornerback a priority again, especially considering the team had already lost Fabian Washington to a similar injury.

"Right now we expect all those guys to be practicing the first day of training camp, because now days with the way they rehab those injuries, you get back that fast," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "But I don't think you can count on it. I'm sure we'll have a contingency plan."

Which direction the Ravens will go with that contingency plan is probably the biggest mystery of their draft. The best cover corner available, Florida's Joe Haden -- whose father went to Morgan State and was actually raised in Fort Washington -- projects to be long gone by the time the 25th pick in the first round comes up. Boise State's Kyle Wilson is rated as the next best corner available, but there is some debate as to whether he's a first-round talent or not.

"He's a guy I watched a lot of tape of and I took a lot of heat headed into the Senior Bowl from some of me buddies around the league because I had him as a first-round player and they didn't," said Mike Mayock, the NFL Network's draft analyst. "I think he showed footwork and change of direction skills that surprised a lot of people. He's 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, which just gets him over that 5-10 base line a lot of NFL teams use for first-round corners. I think the NFL looks at him as a late [first round pick], or a mid-[second round pick]."

Cornerbacks and safeties won't work out here at the combine until Tuesday, but the Ravens were one of the first teams to meet with Wilson. Wilson, who grew up in New Jersey, wasn't highly recruited out of high school, and had to send out highlight videos of himself to the top 50 schools in the country just to get scholarship offers. But at Boise State he showed great instinct and cover skills, and may have even given himself an advantage by playing in a pass-happy league.

"Going to Boise State is good for a defensive back," Wilson said. "Everything helps out [playing against the spread]. I think I'm very well-prepared."

The prevalence of spread offenses in high school and college has made it more difficult to evaluate certain positions like tight end and quarterback, but in some respects, it's also made it easier to evaluate cornerbacks and safeties. At least that's the feeling of some coaches and general managers.

"We get to evaluate them in space," said Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher. "We get to evaluate them as a zone player, as a man player, but probably most importantly, you get to evaluate them as an open field tackler because you have this quick passing game and screens and all these things that are taking place. So it makes it a little easier to evaluate now as it was 10 years ago."

Because it's easier to gauge whether or not a cornerback's skills can translate to the wide open NFL, it makes it easier to take a risk on a player who might not be as well-known as others at that position.

"It used to be that you had to go through a lot of tape to see if they can cover somebody," Harbaugh said. "Now you've got four receivers on the field with most of these teams and it's wide-open football. There are multiple corners out there covering people, so you probably do get a better feel for that. "

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