Mason and Heap are the Ravens’ top two receivers in franchise history and have accounted for over half of Joe Flacco’s targets since he took over in 2008.
It is easy to see why many people believe that the team must replace them with proven, veteran talent. It is hard to believe that rookies and second year players could replace what Mason and Heap brought to the table.
The fact that most people overlook is that neither player was a game-breaking talent. They were very good leaders and were extremely consistent and reliable. However, they were not match-up nightmares for opposing defenses.
It would be foolish to say that the Ravens won’t miss the leadership and reliability, but it would also be foolish to say that team absolutely relied on their talents to win games.
Heap and Mason were part of a whole arsenal of possession receivers that the Ravens fielded last season and unfortunately, the offense proved that you can have too much of a good thing.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason and Todd Heap were the Ravens top receivers last season. Soon into the season it became clear that they all brought the same skill-set to the game. Each player was a great possession receiver in their own right, but even though they each differed in subtle ways, they collectively lost because their talents did not compliment each other but mirrored each other.
On the surface, that does not seem like a big problem. The thinking is that a team cannot have too many good players. That was certainly the Ravens’ logic when they traded for and signed all those receivers last off-season.
Unfortunately, that logic blew up in their faces. What they failed to see is that when every receiver shares the same skill-set, the opposing defense only needs to defend against one type of passing attack. Overall, it makes the passing game one-dimensional.
Perhaps the biggest key to success in the NFL is being multi-dimensional, especially on offense. It’s a fact that many fans don’t realize but coaches and teams live and die by.
If an opposing defense can shut down the offense by simply shutting down one aspect of the passing or running attack, the offense is hampered because that puts the defense at a great advantage.
Sure, a one-dimensional offense can try to exploit the defense overplaying in one dimension, but it will not yield consistent success. For example, the Ravens would sometimes try throwing deep last season because opposing defenses would crowd the line of scrimmage and flood defenders inside 10 yards.
The problem was that the Ravens receivers could often be covered one-on-one down the field. Since running a go-route, relies on speed above all else and does not make use of a possession receiver's talents of route-running and strong hands.
Therefore, even average corners could lock down the Ravens possession receivers on deep routes. Even though the offense did catch the defense napping on occasion, the average result of the Ravens trying to throw deep would typically be Flacco holding the ball and waiting for the receivers to break open, which often lead to a sack or a check down to an underneath receiver.
Those problems are the biggest reasons why the Ravens were comfortable moving on from Heap and Mason. They will certainly miss the off-field influences of both players, but the NFL is too competitive to retain players that have outlived their usefulness on the field.
That’s not to disrespect what Heap and Mason can still add to another team. There’s little doubt that Heap will help Kevin Kolb and the Arizona Cardinals win games, and Mason will surely do the same for the New York Jets. They are still capable possession receivers, but the fact is that the Ravens can only invest so much at one position.
Many people have speculated that the Ravens ultimately wanted to resign both Mason and Heap, and there is probably some truth to that.
Heap could have helped the Ravens continue to slowly phase in the young tight ends, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. The team had to decide what that role was worth to them and make an offer to Heap. Ultimately, the team decided that having Heap on the roster was a luxury that they could not afford. It may seem risky to put so much confidence in the young tight ends but other teams have had success with youth. The New England Patriot’s rookie tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez lit it up last season.
The Ravens will never replace what Heap brought to the team neither on the field nor off the field, but overpaying veterans for what they've done in the past is one of the biggest mistakes an NFL team can make. This is where it becomes abundantly clear that the NFL is a business. Sometimes young, up-and-coming players are more useful and important than even the most proven veterans.
The same thing can be said about the departure of Derrick Mason. There cannot be enough said about what Mason has done for the Ravens. He deserves every honor that they could bestow upon him, but he no longer deserves a spot on the roster.
The Ravens have grown to the point where they no longer needed Mason. The acquisition of Boldin, a younger and more talented possession receiver, made Mason obsolete as a player. Again, that’s not saying that he’s washed up, only that his services are no longer needed by the Ravens specifically.
That sounds harsh to many fans but is the reality of the NFL. The team needed to move on. Ideally, they may have liked to keep both players for the sake of continuity, but teams cannot pay players for those types of superficial reasons when there’s a salary cap in effect.
With Boldin playing the role as the veteran leader and mentor to the young receivers, the Ravens should have no problem transitioning to the next level. Fans may feel like it was a mistake to cut Mason and Heap in favor of unproven players, but the bigger mistake would have been to keep ineffective players for non-football related reasons.
The Ravens made the right moves and ultimately, setup their offense for short and long-term success.