The football rarely hit the ground, at least not when Joe Flacco was throwing and wide receivers Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson and David Reed were the targets.
It was just a routine organized team activity practice this week, but it offered an early snapshot of the candidates the Ravens are auditioning at wide receiver after trading veteran Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers.
No lasting conclusions should be reached in May, but Doss displayed sound hands and route running with one diving catch to his credit. Thompson is arguably the fastest player on the roster. And Reed, who has overcome a history of knee injuries, is quick out of his breaks and elusive after the catch.
None of them are established in regular season games, though. Last season, Doss, Thompson and Reed combined for 17 receptions for 240 yards and one touchdown.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh is generally encouraged about their progress.
"Yes, they are handling it well," Harbaugh said of a group of receivers that also includes former Maryland wide receiver LaQuan Williams and athletic seventh-rounder Aaron Mellette. "They have always gotten reps, in the sense of practice reps. They look stronger than ever. They are all in the best shape of their lives, so they are ready to handle the workload in terms of the practice reps.
"They have all reacted very well the first two days of practice, so they are playing like veterans out there right now. Just have to keep improving every day. Take them into the preseason and see how they do.”
Pro Bowl kick returner Jacoby Jones figures to have an expanded role, quite possibly as the Ravens' No. 2 receiver opposite Torrey Smith. Smith is a speedy former Maryland player who's clearly the top receiver on the roster and caught 49 passes for 855 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
And Doss, Thompson and Reed are expected to compete for the third spot -- and perhaps more -- depending on how the preseason goes and if the Ravens don't sign a veteran receiver.
For now, the Ravens' preference is to evaluate their own players to try to replace Boldin's production after he led the Ravens with 65 receptions for 921 yards and four touchdowns last season, with another 22 catches for 380 yards and four touchdowns during the playoffs.
Out of the younger receivers, Doss' style suits itself well to operating in the slot because he's 6 feet 2, 210 pounds. His problem has been a lack of durability, dealing with hamstring and ankle problems in the past.
In Flacco's opinion, the Ravens have enough potential in the receiving corps to get the job done, when he was asked about the potential of adding a veteran wideout.
"I haven’t heard too much about all that, but I’m excited about who we have," Flacco said. "I like the idea of having guys that we’ve had, we’ve drafted here or we’ve picked up here, and grooming them and getting those guys to become great wide receivers. They definitely have the talent to do it. I think we just need to get them some reps. And when I say reps, I mean game time reps, so they’re confidence can take off.
"One of the biggest things about Anquan is that he knew he was the man. So, when he went out there, he didn’t care what happened. He was the man. You don’t realize how much that helps out your play and your team’s play. And when these young guys can get to the point where they’re out there and their attitude is that, they have all the ability in the world, and I feel very confident with those guys.”
Boldin consistently made difficult, contested catches.
A three-time Pro Bowl selection who's one of the toughest offensive players in the game, Boldin had earned the trust from Flacco that if he didn't come down with the football, no one else would.
“It’s not like I was getting the ball and looking to see where Anquan was; it was where was the ball going to go and Anquan happened to be there," said Flacco, whose second favorite target behind Boldin was tight end Dennis Pitta, who caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns last season. "Towards the end, there were probably certain times where he was covered, but you had the confidence to throw it up to him. But we have guys all over the field that I have that same confidence in. Anquan probably wasn’t here last year at this point anyway, so at this point it’s no different.”
The Ravens signed Flacco to a $120.6 million blockbuster contract this offseason and offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell is expected to entrust the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player with even greater freedom to operate the offense.
While the Ravens have back four of five starters on the offensive line, it's imperative that someone else emerges as a consistent receiving threat to go with Smith and Pitta during the next few months.
"They're doing well," Flacco said. "Those guys are doing a great job right now, catching the football and being in the right spots."
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