The NFL's second-best defense last season just got a whole lot faster.
With the release of long-time starters Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, as well as the departure of Jim Leonhard via free agency, general manager Ozzie Newsome decided to inject some new blood into a unit that still ranked second against the pass last year despite several injuries. The influx of youth in the secondary is yet another change to the Ravens this offseason.
McAlister, a three-time Pro Bowler and mainstay in Baltimore since being drafted in the first round in 1999, had battled injuries the past two seasons, ending both on Injured Reserve. Rolle missed time as well, sitting out 16 games over the last two years for a variety of health reasons.
"That hurts to see those guys go, but this is the NFL," said cornerback Fabian Washington, who started in place of McAlister last season after he went down. "Every year, there is change in this league. We're going to have to work together as a group – corners and safeties – to make this the best season we can make it."
Signing quality players in the secondary was a priority for the Ravens this year as they shored up their depth.
"If you watched the Ravens' defense last year, you knew that we were always one injury away from something bad happening," commented recently-named defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.
Washington and Foxworth, both of whom ran 4.2 second 40-yard dashes at the NFL Scouting Combine, are expected to be the starting cornerbacks, with Carr competing with Frank Walker for the nickel spot. Landry is also expected to return to his starting role in 2009.
"I think we're one of the youngest and fastest units in the league," Washington said, "but we can't just say we're one of the better groups. We're going to have to step out there in OTAs and work hard to show that we're one of the best units in the league."
Washington is seeing the holes on the team being plugged by familiar faces. He and Foxworth became good friends while training together for the Combine as rookies. He also became friends with Carr while they played together in Oakland. All three came into the league together in 2005.
Carr also believes the new and improved Ravens' secondary can make an impact in the upcoming campaign, largely because that's what the unit is known for.
"The Ravens have had a rich history of corners that can play, so I just want to hold myself to that standard," he said. "And, when a player as great as Ed Reed is back there with you, you can't help but play better.
"I'm getting excited to get out there and play with him and the rest of the guys. You've got players like Frank Walker, who played great, especially in the AFC Championship game. You've got Foxworth, whom I always respected. It's exciting to get into a secondary where you respect everyone's abilities."
For Carr, respecting the coach was just as important. Ravens secondary coach Chuck Pagano coached both Carr and Washington while they were all Raiders from 2005-2006.
"Chuck Pagano is the best defensive backs coach that I've ever had," Carr commented. "As a professional, if you want to get better, and you're a competitor, you want a coach that is going to challenge you, that is going to come to you and get you better and that's going to get you prepared mentally to play in the game on Sunday. There's no DB coach I would rather play for."
Washington concurred. "This is going to be the third year Chuck has coached Chris. It's going to be my fourth. That helps, because Chuck knows [our] strengths and weaknesses, he can set [us] up to do well. It's a better situation than if it was just a coach of the street."
The players' confidence in their coaches is reciprocated.
"With all the man coverage and pressure packages we play," said Mattison, "You need to have guys that can cover people.
"We've got some outstanding corners in there that can step in and play."