2009 Baltimore Ravens Offseason Preview: Defensive Backs
The Baltimore Ravens season is over, but fans still have the offseason to look forward to. After a successful 2008 campaign, they are looking to improve in certain areas this offseason. So with the coming of the offseason, comes a position-by-position look at what the Ravens have todo. Today: the secondary.
The Ravens recently released their cornerstone cornerback for the last decade in Chris McAlister. C-Mac, who was a shutdown corner for most of his career, only played in six games this season before being placed on injured reserve with a knee injury and never seemed to click with new coach John Harbaugh.
McAlister didn't play bad in the six games, but he has noticably lost a step in recent years and terminating his large contract helps free up space to retain some free agents.
McAlister's injury forced the team's new addition, Fabian Washington, to be thrust into the starting cornerback role. Washington, a former first-round pick of Oakland, was a bust with the Raiders and was traded to Baltimore for a fourth-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.
However, Washington proved that he has the ability to be a really good starting cornerback this season.
He has the best speed of any defensive back, maybe the best speed of any player, on the Ravens but his ball awareness improved this season as he went head-to-head against opposing teams' No. 1 or 2 receiver week after week and stood his ground.
One criticism of him is his notoriously poor hands as he had one interception to fifteen pass deflections this season. Look for that to be one aspect that he focuses on this offseason.
The starting cornerback on the other side of Washington or McAlister for a majority of the season is veteran Samari Rolle. Rolle struggled during his tenure with the Ravens before this season. Various injuries and epilepsy slowed him down and it looked like he was done being an effective NFL player.
However, the former Pro-Bowler had a great comeback season in 2008.
23 tackles and three interceptions in ten games doesn't sound too impressive, but like Washington, going against the opposing one or two receiver every week, Rolle showed signs of the old Samari in which he would effectively stop the other team's star receiver.
However, his injuries and no bye week since week two caught up with him as he missed the AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh due to a serious groin injury. A big reason why the Ravens lost that game was not having Rolle out there as Baltimore's depth at cornerback is weak.
There are rumors that the Ravens will cut Rolle as well and if so, that will be a big blow to the team's secondary.
When healthy, Rolle is still a top-tier cornerback and his veteran presence will be needed greatly, even if (for that matter, especially if) the team drafts a cornerback in the first round, which seems likely. He can be an effective nickel back, which suits him now that his speed is lessened.
To say Baltimore's depth at cornerback is weak would be a polite understatement. Starting for Rolle in the AFC Championship game was Frank Walker.
Walker is not a bad cornerback by any means, but he is undisciplined at times, gets unnecessary penalties, and gambles on plays too much. He is under contract for one more season, but if he is your team's third best corner, you are in trouble.
Another depth player for the was veteran Corey Ivy. Ivy, like Walker, is not a bad player, but has some deficiencies that keep him from being an effective corner. His speed is marginal at best (due to several injuries through his career), and like Walker he tends to gamble.
He is a good hitter (gets many tackles on special teams), but as a defensive back, he wasn't much of a factor. He is a free agent and it is likely that Baltimore won't retain him.
Fourth-year player Evan Oglesby, like Ivy, was a force on special teams but didn't get much play on defense. He has decent speed and hits very well, so he could potentially be a good depth player for defense in 2009.
Rounding out the cornerbacks is third-year player Derrick Martin. Martin played all 16 games in 2007 and didn't play badly, getting 40 tackles and two interceptions, but only had 1 tackle in four games this season before going on injured reserve. He might compete for a spot as a defensive specialist next year.
Position Grade: C- (note: grade is for position situation, not how well the players played in 2008)
How to improve:
Oh boy. If the rumors are true and Samari is indeed cut by the Ravens, they will need to draft two cornerbacks early on. One in the first round for sure and one in the third or fourth round as a nickel back.
They need a legit No. 1 cornerback now so Rolle can be shifted to nickel, and at pick 26 they have some options. The best case scenario is Vontae Davis falling to them, but otherwise DJ Moore, Alphonso Smith, and Victor Harris can all be options.
If they feel that wide receiver is a more pressing need and they take a receiver in the first round (very possible), they could take one with the 25th pick of the second round. Smith and Harris may still be available then, as well as Darius Butler out of Connecticut, who could also be an option.
Depth is a problem, so taking a corner in later rounds will be a good idea. Chris Owens out of San Jose State and Bruce Johnson from Miami would both be solid picks for depth in later rounds.
Headlining the safety crew for Baltimore is perhaps the finest free safety in all the NFL, Ed Reed. Reed had an MVP-caliber season and opposing quarterbacks learned why they should not throw in his direction: because he will catch the ball and score a touchdown and make you look incompetent.
Reed had an NFL-leading nine interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns in the regular season, as well as two interceptions in the post-season, one of which was returned for a touchdown. He also broke his own record for longing interception return for a touchdown with a 108 yard touchdown against the Eagles.
There were questions coming into the season as to whether Reed would be effective this season due to a severe neck injury last year (there were even some rumors that he would retire), but he put those questions to rest with a great season and it looks like he will have many more to come.
Across from Reed, Baltimore had two different starting strong safeties this season. Dawan Landry is a young safety who looked like an upcoming star, but a spine injury forced him onto injured reserve after just two games.
Replacing him was new addition Jim Leonhard who stepped up admirably in his place. Baltimore has a decision to make as both are free agents this offseason, both played extremely well at strong safety, but both play entirely different styles of football.
Landry is a traditional strong safety with good size at 6'0" and 220 pounds and a big hitter. His run support is fantastic, but he hasn't had an interception since his rookie season.
However, he had five that season and keep in mind that he only played two games this year. It looks like he will be the one that Baltimore keeps but he will have to improve his play against the pass during the offseason.
Leonhard is the classic NFL overacheiver. Very undersized at 5'8 and 185 pounds, Leonhard was an asset both as a safety and as a return man this season. He is a tough player that plays with a lot of heart and intensity.
He doesn't tend to gamble and was a great compliment to Reed for the season. A best case scenario would be keep both Landry and Leonhard, moving Jim over to the nickel. It would be killing two birds with one stone, but Leonhard will likely get a big contract from a team in need of a starting safety.
The Ravens have good depth at both safety spots. Backing up Reed at free safety was rookie Haruki Nakamura who was considered a steal when Baltimore drafted him in the sixth round.
"Ruki" had 12 tackles, mainly on special teams, but was used on defense occasionally both at free safety and nickel back. He will be a valuable backup to Reed for years to come.
Another safety taken in the 2008 draft was Tom Zbikowski out of Notre Dame. Zbikowski had 19 tackles, once again mainly on special teams, but was effective at both safety spots and as a spot kick returner. Both Zbikowski and Nakamura provide much-needed depth for the safeties, making it a solid all-around corps.
Position grade: A
How to improve: The Ravens need to make a decision whether to keep Landry or Leonhard (it seems like it's already been made though, as the coaching staff seems set on Landry), and pray that they didn't make the wrong decision.
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