When will the Baltimore Ravens have a big-time wide receiver?
That’s the question Ravens fans have asked since the team came to Baltimore in 1996, and it looks like they’ll have to wait another year for the answer.
The Ravens enter the 2009 preseason with nearly the same group that ranked 27th overall in receiving yards last year and still lacks a consistent game-changing threat that could help second-year quarterback Joe Flacco.
Last year, the Ravens notched 3,085 total yards between veteran Derrick Mason, speedster Mark Clayton, oft-injured tight end Todd Heap, and a host of other characters.
Only one receiver notched more than 1,000 yards—Mason with 1,037—while Clayton, the No. 2 receiver, recorded 695 yards. The Ravens’ other two receivers, Demetrius Williams and Yamon Figurs, combined for 223 yards.
Tight ends, running backs, and even quarterbacks accounted for the other 1,130 receiving yards and had nearly half the receptions, showing how much the Ravens spread the ball to team strengths.
Mason, who will be 35 this season, is a solid veteran who has recorded more than 1,000 receiving yards seven of the past eight years.
Last year, he battled through a shoulder injury that essentially limited him to playing with one arm throughout the end of the regular season and the playoffs.
The Ravens can expect the same production from Mason, but the rest of the crew is a mixed bag.
Clayton took a step forward last year, but has yet to reach the potential he showed in his second season in 2006 when he caught 67 balls for 939 yards and five touchdowns.
The fleet-footed 5'10" receiver from Oklahoma recorded his fewest receptions since coming to the Ravens in 2005, but upped his yardage from 531 in 2007 to 695 last year.
He recorded three receiving touchdowns and got more involved in the running game, often via reverses, racking up 81 total rushing yards and a touchdown.
Williams and Figurs were never consistent weapons for the Ravens, though they occasionally made big plays down the field with their speed.
But the hole at wide receiver is nothing new for Baltimore.
For 12 years, through one Super Bowl championship and five playoff appearances, the team has had just one Pro Bowl wide receiver—kick returner Jermaine Lewis in 1998.
The Ravens have been close to landing a big-time wideout in the past. In 2004, they pulled off a trade with the San Francisco 49ers to acquire Terrell Owens, only to have the NFL step in and nix the trade when Owens fervently protested.
The Ravens have spent two first-round draft picks on wide receivers, selecting Florida wide receiver Travis Taylor 10th overall in 2000 and Clayton 22nd overall in 2005. Taylor was a bust and is a free agent entering this season, while Clayton has yet to emerge.
Baltimore was rumored to be in the mix in a trade for disgruntled Arizona receiver Anquan Boldin this offseason, but draft day came and went and Boldin remains a Cardinal.
The Ravens did not select a wide receiver in the draft, contrary to what analysts predicted.
The team looked to fill the void of a No. 3 receiver in particular by signing free agent veteran Kelly Washington and a pair of undrafted rookies. But none appear to be impact players.
Washington had one reception for three yards in 24 games the past two seasons with the New England Patriots. His best season was in 2004 with the Bengals, when he caught 31 passes for 378 yards and three touchdowns.
Undrafted free agents Eron Riley and Isaiah Williams, from Duke and Maryland respectively, will battle with a handful of other receivers for a roster spot.
By now, teams have long known that the Ravens lack much of a threat at wide receiver.
Opponents generally focus the majority of their attention on Pro-Bowl tight end Todd Heap, as was shown last year when Heap started all 16 games but had about half the production during previous healthy seasons.
If Heap is injured or struggling, teams can and will hone in on Mason, leaving Flacco and the Ravens without a solid target to throw to. That’s when a hole turns into a weakness as glaring as the sun.
The best-case scenario for the Ravens is that Heap is healthy and productive, taking more pressure off the receiving corps so Mason can continue producing, Clayton can step up his game, and a third receiver can emerge from a pack of no-names.
If all those things happen, the Ravens could turn a weakness into a strength.
But don’t count on it.