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Ravens could have their pick from deep pool of defensive backs to upgrade secondary

In this Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, file photo, Duke's Braxton Deaver (89) is hit by Florida State's Jalen Ramsey (13) in the first half of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship in Charlotte, N.C.
In this Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, file photo, Duke's Braxton Deaver (89) is hit by Florida State's Jalen Ramsey (13) in the first half of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship in Charlotte, N.C. (Bob Leverone / AP)

INDIANAPOLIS — There are questions about them all.

Is Florida State's Jalen Ramsey an NFL cornerback or safety? Is Florida's Vernon Hargreaves too small? Will Virginia Tech's Kendall Fuller be healthy enough to contribute as a rookie? Why didn't Clemson's Mackensie Alexander have an interception in his two college seasons?

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As the Ravens prepare for April's draft, their attempt to fix a mistake-prone and big-play-lacking secondary remains a priority. At least in the eyes of one prominent draft analyst, this year's prospect class represents a good opportunity to do it.

"The two deepest positions for me are defensive tackles and corners," NFL Network's Mike Mayock said Saturday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "It's a really good corner draft. I think we are going to start hearing more names than just the three or four that we've been talking about the last couple of months."

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The cream of the cornerback draft crop consists of Ramsey, Hargreaves, Alexander and Ohio State's Eli Apple. Fuller, a Baltimore native and likely the latest NFL player from a remarkable football family, is right behind them, only because he's still recovering from major knee surgery. However, Fuller is not ready to concede anything.

"We've got some good guys," Fuller said. "You've got Jalen. You've got Mackensie, Vernon, Eli, me. I know those guys personally coming out with them and I expect all those guys to come out here and say that they are the best corner. That's the competitive nature that they have. That's how we all respect each other. But I'm going to also say that I'm the best corner coming out in the country."

One by one, the draft's top corners made their cases Saturday when they took their turn answering questions from reporters at Lucas Oil Stadium. They'll have another opportunity Monday during their on-field workout and testing.

Ramsey wasn't available to speak to reporters, but the rest of the cornerback group said plenty Saturday. And nobody spoke any louder and longer than Clemson's Alexander, who probably had the most entertaining player news conference of a relatively uneventful combine.

"I'm going to say it — and a lot of you guys will say it — I'm the best corner in this draft class. You know what I mean?" Alexander said. "If you look at stats, my numbers, who I am as a person, who I'm competing against — I went against the best receivers in the country. I went against more of the top receivers than anybody in this draft class, and I'm going step for step. I'm not just moving outside, I'm going inside. I'm playing zone, I'm able to blitz, I'm able to show my versatility, everything.

"This means a lot to me. This ain't just me coming out here and speaking to you guys. I'm 22, but I'm ready, and I'm ready to compete with anybody. There's nobody more dedicated than me. Who's put more time and who's more of a competitor than me? … We can break down film. We can break down anything. I'm here prepared, and I'm telling you I'm the best corner in this draft class."

The good news for the Ravens is that there's enough depth at the position where they should be able to get an immediate contributor even if they bypass the position with the sixth overall pick. But they certainly can't afford to miss.

With Lardarius Webb's move to safety and Shareece Wright's pending unrestricted free agency, the only proven outside corner on the roster is Jimmy Smith who is coming off an uneven season. Kyle Arrington was overmatched last year outside the slot and he's a candidate to be let go as the organization seeks to create salary cap flexibility.

The rest of the cornerbacks on the Ravens roster, a group that includes Will Davis, Julian Wilson, Tray Walker, Sheldon Price, Jumal Rolle and Jermaine Whitehead, are a combination of young and/or unproven.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome "says all the time that you can't have enough corners," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Thursday. "We want corners and we're looking for corners."

Even with Webb, Will Hill, Kendrick Lewis, Terrence Brooks, Matt Elam and Anthony Levine all on the roster, the Ravens have also talked about adding another safety with the priority being to find a ball hawk for new position coach Leslie Frazier.

The Ravens had a league-low six interceptions last year. To put that in perspective, Ed Reed, the team's longtime safety, had five seasons where he had seven interceptions or more.

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Ramsey, a 6-foot-1, 209-pound defensive back who plays with great athleticism and toughness, would be the ideal fit. While some question where he profiles best at in the NFL, the Ravens would love the opportunity to figure it out and use his versatility to help out the defense on several fronts.

However, the likelihood is that Ramsey will be long gone by the time the Ravens are on the clock at six. He has even generated some buzz as an option for the Tennessee Titans with the first overall pick. That would leave Hargreaves next in line, and the Ravens would have to be comfortable with his below-average size (5 feet 10) for the position.

"He's got the best feet I've seen in the last couple of years," Mayock said, downplaying the height questions. "Vernon Hargreaves, he's got special abilities and he's not going to get pushed down that far. He's going to be fine. If he's 5-9, 5-8 ½, it might be different. But still, the kid has special traits."

Hargreaves has embraced the individual battle with Ramsey to see who is the first defensive back off the board.

"We don't really talk about it when we see each other, but we see the stuff. It's kind of like a sideline rivalry with us," Hargreaves said. "He wants to be first, I want to be first. I'm going to say I'm the best, he's going to say he's the best. That's what football is about and we're going to go to work on Monday."

Apple is expected to be taken in the second half of the first round, so he likely won't be in play for the Ravens unless they trade back from the sixth pick. There's a chance that Alexander is still around when the Ravens prepare to make their second-round pick as there are questions about the corner's ball skills. However, given the number of teams looking for corners, that potential deficiency could be overlooked.

That would leave the Ravens to select in the middle rounds from a cornerback group that includes Fuller, Alabama's Cyrus Jones (Gilman), Louisiana State's Tre'Davious White and Houston's William Jackson.

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