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Pompei: Ravens’ Corey Graham shows he’s more than special teamer

(MCT) — NEW ORLEANS — The Baltimore Ravens are in the Super Bowl.

The Bears are not.

A link between the teams is Corey Graham. But he isn’t the same Corey Graham who called Soldier Field home.

That was Corey Graham, special teams ace.

This is Corey Graham, starting cornerback.

Purple never has been so flattering.

To tell Graham’s story, we have to start in 2007, when the Bears drafted him in the fifth round out of New Hampshire. He was coming off a broken ankle but stuck with the team because of his instincts and toughness.

In 2008, he got a chance to play, starting nine games at cornerback ahead of Nathan Vasher, who was inefficient and then injured. Graham showed a knack for making plays, but the coaching staff had concerns about his speed and athleticism being insufficient.

So the next season they tried him at safety for a couple of weeks. When that experiment flamed out, it was back to cornerback, where he inexplicably was at the bottom of the depth chart.

From that point on, Graham was a special teams player with the Bears. No more, no less.

And in hindsight, you can say it was a clear mismanagement of personnel. Special teams imprisoned Graham.

“I tried to be the best special teams player in the league,” said Graham, who was selected to the Pro Bowl in that capacity after the 2011 season. “When you’re doing that, sometimes you get labeled like that. Sometimes it’s hard to get that label off.”

It took a while for the fact Graham had been mislabeled to become apparent.

When Graham was an unrestricted free agent in 2011, teams were not exactly throwing wads of cash at him. The Bears valued him so much as a special teams player, they paid him $1.5 million for one season. He played well on defense in training camp but still was overlooked.

This past offseason, the Bears wanted him back again, and the Lions and Seahawks also were interested.

The Ravens were the big bidder, however, and Graham went for the cheese.

But even the Ravens did not realize Graham was more than a special teamer. They signed him only after they struck out in their bid to sign Blake Costanzo, who replaced Graham in Chicago.

“Corey Graham was a guy that we brought in because he was a special teamer,” Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. “He had been to the Pro Bowl (as a special teams player), but when he had played (defense) for the Bears, he had played very good football.

“He wanted an opportunity, and we saw some things during the OTAs and minicamps that he could play. He has the height, weight and speed that we look for at the position, (and) then when he got his opportunity, he stepped in.”

Still, Graham was behind some talented players, and the prospects for him becoming a starter were slim. He was the fourth cornerback going into the season.

Then Lardarius Webb, who had just signed a contract worth a reported $50 million, tore an ACL in the sixth game. His replacement, former first round pick Jimmy Smith, lasted two games before injuring his groin.

Graham stepped into the starting lineup and stayed there even after Smith returned.

“We put him in a game after some injuries, and wow,” Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin said. “I don’t see a reason to take him out.”

In 11 starts since, Graham has four interceptions, including two against the Broncos’ Peyton Manning in an AFC divisional playoff game.

“He has great ball skills,” Austin said. “If there is a ball to be caught, he’ll catch it. He gives us toughness. He’s a really good tackler. Sometimes you don’t have to be the fastest guy in the world if you know where you are going and you anticipate.”

Graham might not be an Olympic sprinter, but he has what scouts call “competitive speed.” You saw it back when he was running down return specialists for the Bears. And you will see it in Super Bowl XLVII when he is covering Michael Crabtree or Randy Moss.

“It’s been unreal,” Graham said of his opportunity. “That’s what you ask for. You wait five years, and I finally get my chance to play on the defense. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Graham is grateful for his time in Chicago. But he had to leave Chicago to become all he could be.

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