Tuesday, February 17, 2009

McAlister Out, Rolle Next? Dealing with the Cornerback Situation

It was time, I suppose. Chris McAlister was just released by the Baltimore Ravens after his recent injury struggles and to free up $8 million in cap space, presumably to help this cash-strapped team sign its other free agents like Jim Leonhard, Terrell Suggs, Bart Scott and Ray Lewis (among others). This has become a perfect storm for the Ravens, one that Ozzie Newsome probably should have seen coming, but I am far from criticizing one of the best General Managers in the game. However, it does pose some questions moving forward.

From all appearances this would make cornerback the Ravens #1 draft need, leapfrogging the still dire need for a deep threat at wide receiver. I am fine with Samari Rolle and Fabian Washington holding down the fort until some young corner from this year’s draft is ready to step in full time. But now word is coming out that Samari Rolle wants out of Baltimore and will ask to be released at the NFL combine when he meets with Newsome to discuss his current deal. If the Ravens are down both Rolle and McAlister, cornerback suddenly goes from a need to a glaring liability. Fabian, for all his strides this year, is not by any stretch a shutdown cornerback, and without strong cornerback play the defense cannot execute its philosophy of attacking the quarterback with reckless abandon. Add in a new defensive coordinator that may be nervous about sending the house anyway or might not be able to compensate for a weak secondary, and this defense could look more like Minnesota than Pittsburgh. Minnesota lost games because they could not defend the pass nearly as well as they could stop the run- the Ravens cannot afford to have that sort of deficiency on that side of the ball.

This move would also increase the need to sign Jim Leonhard to enable the Ravens to keep another playmaker in the secondary to dissuade quarterbacks from taking them deep. Lacking superior cornerbacks has a ripple effect on the rest of the defense- the linebackers are forced to drop into coverage weakening the pass rush, and the safeties are forced to play deeper limiting their ability to come up and make plays on shorter routes. The Ravens will need a strong turnaround in personnel to make up for this.

However, this move also allows the Ravens more latitude in signing Scott, Lewis, and Suggs. It is reported that they may use the franchise tag on Suggs, who in my opinion is their biggest need of the three. If Lewis is resigned it may trigger the loss of Bart Scott, as it is unlikely that Baltimore will be able to keep all three. This could signal the dismantling of the defense that made up the core of this 21st century Ravens team, and although the team has a solid group of young linebackers ready to step in in Antwaan Barnes, Tavaris Gooden, Prescott Burgess and others, it will be interesting to see how many of them are forced into action this season.

For all the talk about the Ravens’ linebackers, I believe that much more is at stake at the cornerback position. If this team can put some younger players or underrated veterans at these spots it will have a much more positive impact on the team than having to replace one or two of their Big Three at linebacker. If there is one thing that Ozzie Newsome has been excellent at it is replacing talent- he will have his work cut out for him this offseason.

Photo Credit: Doug Kapustin/Baltimore Sun

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