I understand that Ray Rice is an incredibly dynamic player, but when your running back leads your team in receptions and isn’t Marshall Faulk circa 1999, your wide receiving corps has issues. In sum, this unit failed to provide a single consistent deep threat for Joe Flacco, but more than that lacked a playmaker capable of getting separation even on short to intermediate routes. In this look back I will try to wince and identify what went wrong, what went right, and who could be back when the gates open back up at M&T Bank Stadium.
Derrick Mason: Mr. Reliable, the lone star receiver on this cast of misfits, left to make up for the mistakes of an entire unit and save Joe Flacco before he is eaten alive. That may have been true in 2008, but not quite so much in 2009. I am not sure whether you can call it taking a step back, but while his numbers were largely the same this was not the same Derrick Mason as we saw last year. One handed grabs at the goal line were replaced by uncharacteristic drops and flare ups of a temper we were not accustomed to seeing from the even-keeled veteran. Perhaps it was the almost-retirement that did it to him- the desire to win a Superbowl above all else that created a sense of desperation in him for this season. However, he was still far and away the best receiver the Ravens had, and it wasn’t because he was faster, bigger, or more agile than any corner who was on him. He was still smarter, ran his routes properly, and wasn’t afraid to go after the ball. Despite what he would say to the contrary, Joe Flacco’s first (and sometimes only) read was Derrick Mason, and for good reason.
Mark Clayton: I remember when Clayton was drafted, thinking to myself what an amazing slot receiver he would make. In no way did I see this receiver staying on the outside, but there he has been, for lack of any better alternative. If he is going to be productive he needs to find a way to get separation the way he did in college, and catch the ball in key situations. Oftentimes it seemed like no one but Mason wanted the ball thrown their way, and those nerves showed when Clayton dropped that 4th down pass that could have led to a win against the Patriots. This season was by far Clayton’s worst, with the fewest catches as a pro (34) and the second-fewest yards (480). He has also only caught 5 touchdowns in his last 3 seasons. It isn’t right that he should stay on the outside, where the Ravens need a tall, fast downfield threat to complement Mason’s sure handed spot at #1. I will give Clayton a pass as an edge receiver playing out of position, but even by those standards he took a big step backwards.
Kelley Washington: *Sigh* This individual is a borderline starting receiver, but does not see the field on most teams. It is only his experience and adequate physical skill set that got him a job in Baltimore in the first place, and a travesty that he started as many games as he did. Again, it is not his fault- he’s just not that good. The showboating only made things worse, with his ridiculous dances every time he made a first down. Of course, when you don’t get into the end zone very often I suppose you need something else to celebrate. If the Ravens are able to put together even a moderate amount of talent at their skill positions, Kelley Washington only sees the field on 5-wide sets or some sort of flex formation. He did have good quickness however, and caught most of his balls right after a quick move to hit an intermediate pattern. He does have the physical gifts to be productive, but Joe Flacco seems to have an aversion to throwing properly over the middle of the field. When he does (which is rare) he tends to gun it over the head of his receiver. So while he doesn’t belong as the #3 receiver on any team, part of his lack of production has to be attributed to his quarterback’s shortcomings.
Demetrius Williams: What can we say about this mirage of talent? He is fast, that much is for sure. He can make some incredible catches too, I will say that. Is he a dynamic #2 receiver the Ravens need? Unfortunately not. His potential that flashed before our eyes as a 4th round pick from Oregon made me think at the time that he could have been an absolute steal in the draft. Whether it was due to his injuries or his potential simply never paying off we might not tell until later in his career, which makes me wonder why we didn’t see a bit more of him as the season went on. It was clear that Williams was the fastest receiver on the team, and that Flacco was unable to get anyone open deep with any consistency (an important defensive adjustment from 2008), but nevertheless we kept seeing the same group of receivers. Now the coaches likely know something we don’t, but Williams still had the highest yards-per-catch on the team at 17.8. He may be gone next season, but Ravens fans still might never have known what they had.
Only 4 receivers made any catches this year, which tells you all you need to know. Whether it was the offensive system (unlikely, since they were slinging it all over the place at times) the quarterback (Flacco was often on a two read look as plays developed- either Mason, Rice, or take a sack, or the talent pool (no one was getting open anyway), this was by far the worst part of the Baltimore offense. Any or all of these receivers could be gone next season, with Clayton and Williams restricted free agents, and Derrick Mason considering retirement (though he may be back, as he recently met with Ravens officials). For a unit that needs to rebuild and the lack of free agents due to the CBA’s expiration, Baltimore should strongly consider taking a wide receiver in the first round of the draft.
Todd Heap: I could talk about L.J. Smith, but since he was a bigger nonfactor than Demetrius Williams I will let that dog lie. This was a renaissance year for the Arizona native, with 58 catches and 6 touchdowns, mostly coming late in the season when Baltimore’s coaching staff finally remembered that they had a player who is an All-Pro when completely healthy. Unfortunately Heap hasn’t been healthy in years, but he reminded us that he can be a dynamic playmaker. His catches, yards, and touchdowns were his best since 2006, and his blocking was also stellar, not being hampered by lower leg injuries for the first time. If Cam Cameron remembers what he has in Heap he can get great production even as his skills begin to decline with age. It is a shame that such a talent has had to spend his entire career behind such a generally inept offense. I hope that his surrounding skill position players can get better to free him up and force defenses not to key in so heavily on the athletic tight end.
The Ravens will eventually have to draft his replacement, though I think that due to the needs at cornerback and wide receiver that may have to wait another year. Then again, Ozzie Newsome is famous for throwing a curve ball in the draft and winding up in good shape. A second tight end could provide another weapon over the middle and allow the offense to have more flexibility out of the double- tight end sets to pass.