Once news came down the pipeline that the Ravens were releasing three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister, one question many fans may have asked was, "What now?"
Much of that has already been answered.
Although McAlister is still arguably one of the game's top cornerbacks, the Ravens did not have his services for the majority of their 2008 campaign, but managed to finish with the second-best pass defense in the league.
Baltimore allowed only 179.7 yards per game all season. And while McAlister's three interceptions were excellent contributions for the first five games in which he played before a sore knee sidelined him for the rest of the year, the Ravens' 19 thefts over that span were an NFL-best.
Safety Ed Reed!(/team/roster/ed-reed/89ece203-7de4-4b40-9651-f16f4c3b7699/ "Ed Reed")'s eight interceptions during that time obviously helped, but Reed was able to be such a ball hawk in part because of solid coverage from the cornerbacks that stepped up in McAlister's absence.
"I think the job those guys did as the season went on was great," said defensive coordinator **Greg Mattison**, who was recently elevated from linebackers coach. "Guys did step up. We expected it out of Fabian, and he delivered."
Washington, acquired for a fourth-round pick from the Oakland Raiders during the 2008 draft, is expected to start again next year.
In addition, **Frank Walker**, a free-agent signee last season, provided key depth in nickel situations and when a fellow defensive back was banged up.
It was a lesson learned from the 2007 campaign, when McAlister and Rolle both ended up on Injured Reserve and coaches felt their backups at the time were overmatched.
"I think it was important that everybody saw we needed to go out and get some help if something happened," said secondary coach **Chuck Pagano**, noting former director of pro personnel George Kokinis, who is now the Cleveland Browns' general manager. "If you lose a guy like Chris to injury and a guy can go in and there's no drop-off, that shows you how great a job our personnel guys did.
"We were fortunate that George and those guys signed Fabian and Frank to get them in here."
At this point, the Ravens' veterans need to get healthy.
Rolle injured his groin in a Divisional Playoff matchup with the Tennessee Titans and couldn't play in the following week's AFC title game in Pittsburgh, and Washington played through the year with a lingering neck and shoulder injury that he said would require attention during the offseason.
"That is key for us," Mattison admitted. "That comes from our offseason conditioning and strength program. How they rehab their injuries to move forward will be critical for us moving forward."
As Baltimore's coaches, personnel department and medical staff heads to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week, a strong cornerback pool will undoubtedly be highlighted, as well.
The Ravens are slated to pick 26th, where several of the top cover talents could land, like Vanderbilt's D.J. Moore, Illinois' Vontae Davis, or Alphonso Smith of Wake Forest.
After head coach **John Harbaugh**'s staff worked well into the postseason – even manning the AFC's Pro Bowl squad – the Combine marks the first time many Baltimore coaches will see the prospects up close.
"In the back end, especially at the corner position, you're always trying to get the best athletes back there," Mattison noted. "In this league, it's all about being able to cover someone one-on-one. I'm looking forward to seeing what these young guys can do."
Pagano also looked back at what McAlister has meant to Charm City.
"We wish nothing but the best for Chris," said Pagano. "He's going to land on his feet, and hopefully that's going to be somewhere he can contribute and be happy. He's done a lot for this organization, and he's one of the best at his position, in my opinion."
Without McAlister, who regularly blanketed the opposition's best wideouts for 10 years in purple and black, Ravens fans will have to get used to a new-look secondary.
As proven last year, a new look doesn't necessarily mean a bad look.