Derrick Mason's surprise retirement this week has left the Baltimore Ravens in a very precarious spot going into the 2009 NFL season. Mason, one of the best, if not the best receiver in Ravens history, has played in every game during his tenure with the Ravens and has caught for more 1000 yards in three of his four seasons in Baltimore.
The Ravens receiving corps has been a weakness of the team for most of the team's history, but Mason has been a consistent threat for the last few seasons and at times he was the passing game. Not to mention, Mason was instrumental in the development of one young Joe Flacco as he was the safety option for the rookie quarterback.
Now, he has retired. Mason was contemplating retirement since the end of the season and the Ravens would have preferred that if he did retire, he do so before the draft, not weeks before training camp. However, the death of his close friend and teammate, Steve McNair, surely weighed heavily on his decision and forced him to call it quits.
This decimates the Ravens receiving corps. At the moment, there is only one receiver on the roster who has caught more than 15 passes last season and that's Mark Clayton. The rest are injury-prone and/or unproven. And now they need to step it up.
Some people are calling Mason's bluff and saying that before the season starts, he will be back in a Raven uniform. It is possible, but in case that he stays retired, it's time to take a look at the current Baltimore receiving situation, assuming that they don't sign a veteran free agent (Marvin Harrison, Amani Toomer, etc.):
Mark Clayton - Clayton is set to be the new No. 1 wide out for the team. Once considered a slight first round bust, Clayton has stepped it up last season with Joey Flacco at quarterback last season with 695 yards and three touchdowns. But more than that, Clayton proved to be a reliable target rather than a talented, but frustrating receiver who can't be consistent a la Travis Taylor.
At the moment, Clayton is the only proven wide out on the team. If the other players don't step it up, he will have to perform Mason's role and take over the receiving game. Pressure like that could potentially cause Clayton and Flacco to regress if he has every ball thrown at him because teams would double-team him. And if Clayton is double-teamed and the other receivers play like they did last season, the passing game will fall apart.
While Clayton isn't a deep threat, he can still be a solid number one receiver. He has good, not great speed, above average hands, gets good yards after the catch, and is very versatile. Perhaps most importantly, he is a class act and a team leader. And after losing Mason, the Ravens need leaders on offense.
Demetrius Williams - Williams is the X-factor for the team following this week's news. The Ravens have a lot riding on him as the frontrunner to be the number two receiver and to take pressure off of Clayton.
Williams only had 13 receptions in six games last season before going down with a season-ending ankle injury. He has the label of being injury-prone as he also missed seven games in 2007 with a similar injury. However, if he can stay healthy, Williams has scary potential.
Demetrius compliments Clayton very well in terms of skills. Williams is a bigger, faster receiver who is a true deep threat. Don't look for him to be used much on shorter routes, but there is no receiver with more big play potential on the roster than Williams right now.
Marcus Smith - Smith is a second-year receiver with no catches in his rookie season. Now the team will likely rely on him to be the third wide out.
Smith is player who has a lot of potential but needs to refine certain skills. He is a big, strong receiver who works as hard as any player on the team. A former running back, look for him to be a number three receiver who catches short passes and then gets good YAC. That coupled with his ability to make catches over the middle of the field can make him a potent threat for Flacco.
But in order to do that, he needs to actually catch the ball and as previously stated, he did not have a single catch his rookie season. In his defense, he didn't get in the games much until Williams went down with his injury, but even coming out of college, the knock on him was his poor hands. Ravens coach John Harbaugh has stated that his catching has improved and for the sake of the team, I sure hope so.
Kelley Washington - The big, speedy veteran signed a one-year contract with the team last month and has apparently looked impressive in the offseason.
He has skills and potential, but he hasn't been able to put much together thusfar in his career. Last season with New England, he only had one catch for three yards and his best season was his sophomore season with Cincinnati in 2004 when he had 31 receptions. However, that was also the last time that he had more than 10 receptions in a season.
Washington is similar to Williams as he has good size and speed, but while Williams' problem is his injuries, Washington's problem is his poor hands and questionable field awareness. However, the team is raving about his performance, so as a potential No. 3/No. 4 guy, Washington might be helpful to the team.
Yamon Figurs - Mason's retirement may have very well saved Yamon Figurs' job as he was potentially going to be cut this offseason but now he may stick around a little longer.
Figurs has been a bit of a failure since the team drafted him in the third round of the 2007 draft. In his first season, he wasn't used much as a receiver but was a solid kick returner. In 2008, he only had one catch (although it was for a touchdown) but didn't even return kicks effectively, leading to the Ravens signing of Chris Carr and drafting of Lardarius Webb.
Figurs has great speed, but is weak physically and doesn't have the hands to be a consistent receiving threat. If he doesn't step it up during training camp and pre-season, he could very well still be cut, but if he does step up and live up to his potential, he can give good depth to a team that desperately needs it at this position.
Justin Harper & Ernie Wheelwright - Rounding out the receiving corps are two young players with similar build and skills.
Both are big wide outs (Harper is 6'3" and 215 pounds, Wheelwright is 6'5" and 220 pounds) who have good speed and were red-zone threats in college. Also, neither of them played a game in the NFL last season.
The current situation calls for guys like this to step up and look for one of these players to as they both have deep threat potential, which the team really needs.
Tight ends - Todd Heap was a top-tier NFL tight end a few years ago, but injuries have crashed him back to earth. He isn't the great receiving tight end that he once was, but if he can stay healthy, he can potentially replace Mason as the safety valve for Flacco.
Baltimore also signed L.J. Smith from Philadelphia. Smith is a solid receiving threat every now and then, but is known for dropping passes at crucial times.
A sleeper option is sixth round draft pick out of East Carolina, Davon Drew. Known as a blocker, Drew emerged as an effective pass catcher in his final season at ECU and could be an important part of the Ravens offense this season.
Ray Rice - With Le'Ron McClain moving back to fullback this season and Willis McGahee being a bit of a question mark at this point, Rice is set to be the feature back in the Ravens offense. One thing that sets him apart from other running backs in the league is his versatility. Rice is a speed back who can catch the ball as well as anybody. Look for him to be a consistent target of Flacco in both the running and passing game.
Troy Smith - If things really get out of hand, don't be surprised to see Smith lined up as a wide out every now and again.
He was used as a receiver in the Wildcat offense occasionally last season and the team has been using him in that same regard during the offseason. He has the speed and versatility to be effectively used as a Wildcat receiving option this season.