Ravens secondary no longer a question mark

OWINGS MILLS - Once a question mark, the Baltimore Ravens' secondary is attempting to transform into an exclamation point. A year ago, cornerback Chris McAlister was the lone owner of established NFL credentials as the only returning starter. Before most of these defensive backs could draw criticism, they required identification. Now, McAlister is joined at minicamp by several players who gained valuable experience last season with relatively few scars and embarrassment.

Considered one of the most competitive positions on the team with the addition of former Cleveland Browns standout Corey Fuller, a myriad of scenarios have been entertained by the coaching staff as to who will play where this fall.

"We can't rest on our laurels," secondary coach Donnie Henderson. "Nothing is written in stone as far as the lineup. It has the makings of a really good group, but we still have a lot of work to do. It's my job to manage the personalities."

Last season, the Ravens allowed 224.4 passing yards per contest, 16 touchdown passes and intercepted 25 passes. Opposing quarterbacks had an aggregate 73.4 rating.

Gary Baxter emerged as a starter opposite McAlister after an injury-plagued rookie campaign and finished second on the team with 90 tackles and 20 pass deflections.

Opposing offensive coordinators were obviously targeting him early in the season and avoiding McAlister.

By the end of the season, though, Baxter was defending the Pittsburgh Steelers' 6-foot-6 receiver Plaxico Burress and held him to three catches for 52 yards.

"That's a game I'm proud of, but it's also a game I have to learn from because I want to be one of the top elite corners by growing from mistakes," Baxter said. "I think it's a stepping stone I can build confidence from. "As a secondary, I think we can be really great, especially with the chemistry that we built last year."

Strong safety Ed Reed went from a consensus All-American at the University of Miami to an all-rookie selection after being chosen in the first round. Reed collected 86 tackles, five interceptions and 13 pass deflections with one touchdown. He also registered more defensive snaps than any other Raven.

"That's a world of knowledge," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

Playing next to Reed, rookie safeties Will Demps and Chad Williams combined for 107 tackles, four interceptions, 15 pass deflections, two forced fumbles and a sack.

An undrafted free agent, Demps started 10 games before giving way to veteran Anthony Mitchell at the end of the season.

"If we can keep building off what we did last year, that could have a nice carry-over effect for us," Demps said. "It's going to be really competitive and nothing is promised to anyone."

Between McAlister (1st, 1999), Reed (1st, 2002), Baxter (2nd, 2001), Fuller (2nd, 1995) and nickel back candidate Tom Knight (1st, 1997), the Ravens have five defensive backs chosen within the first two rounds of the NFL draft. Besides McAlister and Reed staying where they are , it's possible that Fuller could start at corner and Baxter could shift inside to free safety, where he once played at Baylor.

Fuller could play safety as he did for the Browns in 1999, or he could shift back and forth and act as the nickel back. Plus, Mitchell is a candidate at free safety, splitting repetitions with Demps this weekend. If Knight can stay healthy, he's another wild card at cornerback.

"I have no interest in who's in first, second, third, fourth or fifth," Billick said. "We're watching it in its totality and we're a long way before putting combinations together."

Released by the Browns this winter in a cost-cutting move, Fuller prefers to remain at cornerback, where he's played for the majority of his pro career. Fuller worked with the first defense at cornerback Saturday as McAlister observed from the side. McAlister has yet to sign his one-year, $5.962 million tender as the club's franchise player.

"I didn't come here to step on any toes, but I know they didn't bring me here to sit on the bench, either," Fuller said. "In my career, I've had some personal accolades and I want to win a ring, so I'll do whatever it takes. I don't want to hurt the team at safety when I know I can help them at corner."

Aaron Wilson writes for The Carroll County Times.

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