Just a short time ago, a potential Super Bowl trip was the only thing on the minds of Ravens fans and staff. After a heartbreaking loss in Pittsburgh, the Ravens plunged into offseason preparations. The first part of these preparations is the search for young talent via the NFL Draft. Though the Ravens had a solid season, there will be areas of the team that the front office will try to address via the draft.
The Senior Bowl, which annually occurs in Mobile, Ala., is a great opportunity for NFL teams to get a closer look at the years best senior prospects. Just like any other year, the Ravens personnel department, including Ozzie Newsome, Pat Moriarty, and Eric DeCosta, traveled south in the quest to find the right players to add to the Ravens roster. The Ravens staff will be looking at every player, but may be focusing on the cornerback and wide receiver positions.
Luckily for the Ravens, the 2009 Senior Bowl teams aren't lacking any talent at those positions.
Possibly the best cornerback attending the 2009 Senior Bowl is Alphonso Smith of Wake Forest. Smith was a four-year starter in the ACC and was awarded first team All-American honors his senior season. Smith has shown a knack for making plays, recording 21 interceptions during his tenure at Wake Forest. During Senior Bowl week practices, Smith has lived up to expectations as the best senior corner available in this year's draft, blanketing opposing wide receivers during practice and breaking up passes.
The common knock on Smith is his size. Listed at 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, Smith doesn't have ideal height. However, Smith isn't concerned about his height being a problem.
"You've got to have ball skills," said Smith after the South team practice on Wednesday. "There are a lot of guys out there, 6-feet, 6-foot-1, with absolutely no ball skills at all, so it kind of defeats the purpose."
Smith is planning on showcasing his abilities on Saturday, and was even observed returning punts in practice this week.
There are several other cornerbacks that have played well throughout practices this week. Darius Butler from Connecticut has displayed consistent coverage skills this week and will start for the North's defense on Saturday along side Victor "Macho" Harris from Virginia Tech. Harris displayed his physical nature this week, putting himself in position to break up passes and a knack for being around the ball.
For the South team, Troy's Sherrod Martin is hoping to play a solid game on Saturday and become the next Troy defender to make it in the NFL. DeMarcus Ware and Leodis McKelvin, both Troy alumni, were able to use the Senior Bowl to showcase their talent in previous years.
The 2009 Senior Bowl is stocked with wide receiver talent but a player that has caught the attention of scouts is Ramses Barden of Cal-Poly, a division 1-AA school. Many hadn't heard of Barden before this week, but at 6-foot-6, 227 pounds, he's hard to miss on the practice field. Barden registered 67 catches and 18 touchdowns in his senior season, grabbing a total of 50 touchdowns in four seasons with the Mustangs. Scouts were interested in seeing just how Barden would compete with players from the nations top college football programs.
In 2008, Joe Flacco burst onto the scene in Mobile as a young quarterback from Delaware, another Division 1-AA program, and helped himself become the Ravens first-round draft pick. Barden, hoping to have a similar success story, was eager to show that he can compete with the big school players.
"The competition isn't really a shock or anything like that. I've played against good guys before, people that are going on to play in the league," said Barden after the North team practice on Wednesday. "The biggest adjustment this week is probably the same that a lot of people have, and that's not having played in a practice in a month or two months, for me. Now that I'm here, it's business as usual."
Wide receiver may have the deepest talent pool of any position in this year's Senior Bowl. The North team has Big Ten stars Brian Robiskie of Ohio State and Derrick Williams of Penn State. Robiskie has been a ball magnet for the North, having the majority of the passes thrown his way during practices. As for Williams, he has not only played well at wide receiver, but is also returning kicks for the North team.
Also on the North team are Oklahoma standouts Juaquin Iglesias and Manuel Johnson. Iglesias has been superb this week, catching practically everything thrown his way and running what are possibly the most crisp routes of all wide receivers in Mobile. Johnson, the lesser known of the Oklahoma wideouts, has also shown consistent hands when given the opportunity.
For the South squad, a late addition to the roster has been showing promise. Greg Carr of Florida State didn't arrive in Mobile until Monday night, but exploded in Tuesday's practices with some terrific catches. The South also features USC's Patrick Turner, who seemed to catch everything within arms reach of him during practice.
The Ravens had no shortage of talented players to observe and interview throughout Senior Bowl week. Both Alphonso Smith and Ramses Barden are players that are certainly on the Ravens Draft radar, but there will also be hundreds of other players examined before the draft in April. The Ravens have watched practices and conducted interviews with a multitude of players this week, all in the hopes that they'll find the next piece of the puzzle in their quest for a Super Bowl title.