Deep threat needed for long run

The Baltimore Sun

As the Ravens report to training camp today, their needs are few, but glaring.

They want more production out of the running game, and need to find nickel and dime defensive backs. They want to establish continuity with a fairly new offensive line.

And if the Ravens want to go deep into the postseason, they need to find a speedy, talented wide receiver. It's a piece of the puzzle that has been missing for years. The Ravens have had their share of speedsters such as Qadry Ismail and Patrick Johnson, but they weren't the kind of receivers other teams had to game plan against.

The Ravens need a receiver who keeps defensive coordinators up at night. They need someone who has to be double-teamed, who can stretch defenses and open up the middle of the field. It doesn't have to be a Randy Moss or a Terrell Owens. Even a Jermaine Lewis clone would do just fine.

"We have to get that consistent threat, the guy who consistently stretches the field," said Rick Neuheisel, in his first full season as the offensive coordinator.

Are there any left on the free-agent market?

"I think we already have them, certainly in Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams," he said. "There is hope that Yamon Figurs [rookie receiver out of Kansas State] might add to the position, but that is more hope than practical. But I believe we have that guy on the roster."

That's debatable, but one thing is certain: The Ravens badly need a vertical threat.

Offensively, everything else seems to be in place. The line is solid. There is no quarterback debate. The running game should improve with the addition of running back Willis McGahee, and the short passing game was a major staple of the offense a season ago.

There are questions about quarterback Steve McNair's arm strength and ability to throw deep consistently, but coach Brian Billick won't ask McNair to work outside a framework in which he isn't comfortable.

The Ravens, though, need a receiver who can deliver the home run and be enough of a threat to open things up underneath for fellow receiver Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap. They also need a receiver who will prevent defenses from putting a safety in the box, ultimately creating more running lanes for McGahee.

The Ravens didn't have one last season, which makes you wonder why Neuheisel is so confident with basically the same receiving corps from a year ago. "I saw development in both those guys last season," Neuheisel said of Williams and Clayton.

To some, Clayton is too much like Mason. They both run great routes and can get open. Both have reliable hands, but nobody respects their downfield speed. But with some adjustments to the offense, Neuheisel believes Clayton can become more of a game-breaker.

"He has explosiveness," Neuheisel said of Clayton, who had 67 catches for 939 yards and five touchdowns last season, his second with the team. "He has powerful legs and he can get up on you and by you real quickly. He can close on a ball, and there aren't many times we have overthrown him."

Williams, in his second season, is a legitimate speedster. Like most rookies, he started slowly last season but became a threat at the end of the year as he finished with 22 receptions for 396 yards and two touchdowns.

He did drop a few passes down the stretch, but that might have been more from fatigue than a case of another speedy receiver having poor hands.

"He can close and adjust on a ball as well as any receiver I've ever seen," Neuheisel said. "He has the ability to adjust, and that makes him really, really special. During one of our OTA [organized team activity] practices, a long ball was clearly outside of him. Most receivers lose speed trying to get to the outside and adjust, but he just flipped his head and kept running at the same pace. It was truly remarkable."

Neuheisel likes the talent he has to work with. A season ago, the Ravens were predictable because running back Jamal Lewis basically wanted to operate out of the I-formation using one or two tight ends. With McGahee, the Ravens should be more versatile. You might see more three-receiver sets on regular downs.

Clayton, Williams and Mason all have experience playing in the slot as well as playing outside. In the slot, Williams could draw some serious mismatches.

"Demetrius didn't miss any workouts here in the offseason," Neuheisel said. "When we line up in our nickel sets, we could get some mismatches. It could be about defenses having to pick their own poison. We have some guys who can get the first down, and more."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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