Fuller has his role cornered

With 115 NFL starts under his belt, free-agent pickup Corey Fuller is by far the most experienced player in the Ravens' secondary.
With 115 NFL starts under his belt, free-agent pickup Corey Fuller is by far the most experienced player in the Ravens' secondary. (Sun photo by Elizabeth Malby)
While Corey Fuller's position was in question, his role on the Ravens was never up for debate.

The nine-year veteran was brought in this offseason to be the grizzled field leader, filling a void in the secondary two years after Rod Woodson's departure.

Although it took weeks of minicamp for Fuller to persuade the coaching staff to keep him at cornerback rather than safety, he wasted no time stepping into Woodson's shoes and No.26 jersey.

That's where the similarities end. Compared to the laid-back Woodson, Fuller's voice of experience is raised a few decibels.

"He talks more than anybody I've ever played with," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "[Former Ravens tight end] Shannon Sharpe is a church mouse compared to Corey."

When he's on the field, Fuller is trash-talking receivers. When he's off the field, he's advising teammates.

When there are no players around, he has been spotted on the sideline chatting with team president David Modell and equipment manager Ed Carroll.

"I've been talking all my life," Fuller said. "I came out of my mother's womb talking."

Fuller also is a born leader, practicing and playing with a pit bull mentality.

It's that toughness that has rubbed off on the secondary and has long been admired by linebacker Ray Lewis, who has given Fuller the ultimate compliment.

Known for his authoritative control over the defense, Lewis has loosened his leash on the defensive backfield, just like the days with Woodson.

"Corey is a very opinionated guy, but he is very respected," Lewis said. "It gives us that balance again. I'll take care of the front seven; you take care of the back end. We got the run; you take care of the pass. That's the beauty of it."

Last year, the Ravens' secondary was talented and raw, going with three first-year starters. Adding a veteran such as Fuller was a priority for the Ravens' front office, as well as Lewis.

When Fuller was not re-signed by the Cleveland Browns, Lewis immediately called general manager Ozzie Newsome to make a case for his longtime friend. Four days into free agency, Fuller became the Ravens' first addition.

"That's what separated us in 2000," said Lewis, referring to that season's record-setting defense. "You had Rod back there with a young Chris McAlister and a young Duane Starks. Now, you put Corey back there with a young Ed Reed, a young Gary Baxter and a much more mature Chris McAlister; you're looking at the same mode all over again."

Fuller, 32, should be a soothing influence during games since he has experienced nearly everything during his career.

He has made 115 NFL starts -- 29 more than the combined starts of the remaining starting secondary. He also broke into the league in 1995, when McAlister, Reed and Baxter were playing in high school.

"I want to take this young talent and try to lead it to where it needs to go," Fuller said. "I want to keep them calmed down in bad situations. Let them know if someone catches the ball, it isn't the end of the world. Let them know we still got one or two quarters to get the job done."

Veterans usually gain respect from their teammates, but older cornerbacks have to work to maintain their reputation. They often get tested deep to see if they have the speed to keep up.

"Lot of guys think he lost a step, but I guarantee you he hasn't," receiver Travis Taylor said of Fuller. "If anything, he's smarter than he ever was."

If he doesn't get under receivers' skin by talking, Fuller will get under their shoulder pads with his strong grip. His physical play shows up when he jams receivers at the line or when he tackles running backs on sweeps.

In 2001, he established a career high with 96tackles and 23 passes broken up. Last year, his numbers tailed off (38 tackles, eight passes broken up), but his big-game performances did not.

In Week 15, he held Colts receiver Marvin Harrison to an inconsequential three catches in the first half. By the second half, Indianapolis moved Harrison away from Fuller's physical play and lined him up across from Cleveland's Anthony Henry. Harrison finished with nine catches for 172 yards.

"You don't stay around this league at 32 getting a nice paycheck unless you have some redeeming quality," secondary coach Donnie Henderson said. "That's what he's got. He's got perfect character, a great sense of humor, and he studies his craft."

It's now up to the Ravens' big talker to get his teammates to back up his big words.

"Yeah, I like to put it out there that we can be a special defense," Fuller said. "But it's up to us to do it. The pressure is on."

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