Possible new route: starting 3 receivers

The Baltimore Sun

One of the questions heading into Ravens minicamp was the pecking order of the wide receivers.

But Derrick Mason, Demetrius Williams and Mark Clayton aren't battling against each other. They are teaming up in pursuit of a common goal.

If this unit plays up to expectations, there is a possibility the Ravens could use three wide receivers as their primary formation.

"It's not a possibility. It will happen," Mason said yesterday as the Ravens wrapped up their only mandatory minicamp of the offseason. "But I guess it all depends on who we're playing and what we're trying to do in a game. Using three wides is not far-fetched with the three guys that we have."

Whether it was injuries or just coach Brian Billick's scheme last season, the Ravens rarely spread out defenses. Of the Ravens' 557 passes thrown last season, only 39 percent came in a three-wide alignment.

New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron wants to be unpredictable and will change up the formations as well as the personnel groupings. But he told the receivers their play will influence the direction of the offense.

"If we had to start a game today, three wide receivers might be our starting group," Cameron said. "We always like to mix it. But our best 11 players will be our primary personnel group."

The Ravens receivers were one of the most disappointing groups last season.

Outside of Derrick Mason catching a team-record 103 passes, Clayton and Williams took a step backward.

Clayton's receptions went from 67 in 2006 to 48 last season. Williams' yards-per-catch average dropped from 18 to 14.5.

"We didn't click offensively," Clayton said. "It takes so much for a play to go right. I didn't think we were in sync and never found it. It was really tough."

One of the reasons for the offense not clicking was injuries to the quarterbacks and receivers.

Clayton was banged up last season (ankle, turf toe, Achilles' tendon and back), and Williams missed the final seven games with a high left ankle sprain.

As a result, they combined for no touchdowns.

"They've come back and just worked hard," Mason said. "It's business as usual, and that's how it has to be. Whether you have caught 40 or 90 balls, you try to get better the next year."

There has been speculation that if the Ravens were going with only two wide receivers, Williams (6 feet 2, 197 pounds) would get the nod over Clayton (5-10, 195) because Cameron traditionally prefers bigger receivers.

But the Ravens might have to use more wide receivers because of recent injuries to their tight ends.

Still, the receivers have to warrant being on the field, especially when it comes to producing big plays.

The Ravens have been working on routes that allow the receivers to catch intermediate passes while moving upfield. That would allow them better opportunities for yards after the catch.

Gaining yards after making a reception was not a strong area last season for Mason (3.1 yards after the catch), Clayton (2.9) and Williams (1.5).

"We're going to have to find a way to manufacture the big plays," Mason said. "In this league, you are not going to get a guy open streaking down the field all the time. The misperception around town and throughout the media is that we have to constantly throw the ball down the field. You catch a 15- to 20-yard pass and then you run after the catch."

The Ravens' passing attack continually struggled under Billick, ranking 22nd or worse in five of the past six seasons. Last season, the Ravens were 23rd in the NFL in passing.

But that could change this season because Cameron sees "potential" in his receivers.

"The reason I like the potential is not the talent. Everyone can see the talent," he said. "But what everyone doesn't see is the amount of effort and hard work that this receiving group is putting in during the offseason."jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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