Ravens lining up a contingency cornerback

March 01, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

INDIANAPOLIS — Of course, the Ravens need a wide receiver. And, sure, they would 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 the Ravens absolutely have to target at some point in this draft, and they're not even bothering to hide it.

Cornerback.

While it's still true that you need to run the ball to be successful in the NFL - especially in the postseason - 10 different quarterbacks threw for at least 4,000 yards last season, including Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, who faced each other in the Super Bowl. That smashed the record of seven, set in 2007.

And while the New York 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 touching wide receivers.

"The game is all about playing in space now," said Mike Lombardi, a 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 that 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 nowadays, with the way they rehab those injuries, you get back that fast," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "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 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 whether he's a first-round talent.

"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 my 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 baseline 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 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 might 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 makes it more difficult to evaluate certain positions, such as tight end and quarterback. But it has also made it easier to evaluate cornerbacks and safeties. At least that's what some coaches and general managers think.

"We get to evaluate them in space," Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. "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 [opposed to what] it was 10 years ago."

Because it's easier to gauge whether 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."

That could make the Ravens open to the idea of waiting until the second, third or fourth round to take a corner. Several mock drafts have the Ravens taking Rutgers' Devin McCourty or Florida State's Patrick Robinson in one of the first two rounds.

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