Gift of grab

The Baltimore Sun

It was near the midway point of the morning practice yesterday, and Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason ran one of those post-corner routes, leaving cornerback Ronnie Prude in another zip code. Mason easily hauled in a 40-yard touchdown pass.

Minutes later, Mason was shaking veteran cornerback Chris McAlister loose as well. Regardless of who lines up against him, Mason, 34, doesn't seem to have lost a step.

Despite 710 career receptions and 170 games played throughout a stellar 11-season career, Mason, at least for now, is winning the battle against an opponent that has not lost a fight: Father Time.

"He's got a lot more juice than I thought he did," receivers coach Jim Hostler said. "I had Wayne Chrebet at the end of his career. When they start to get a little older, they don't quite have the ability to get in and out [of breaks]. They can't push guys as far. But Derrick has not shown that.

"Coming here, I didn't know if I was anticipating it. But I understood what it might look like. But there is no sign of that at all. In fact, he has more juice than I ever thought he would."

The Ravens wish they could bottle Mason's energy. Only two other players practice as hard as Mason, and they are defensive tackle Kelly Gregg and middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

Training camp under first-year coach John Harbaugh is much tougher than those run by predecessor Brian Billick. Morning practices, in particular, have been extremely physical. But in almost every drill done by the receivers, Mason is the first in line.

Since he became a Raven via free agency in 2005, Mason has become a full-time player, part-time coach, tutoring young receivers such as Mark Clayton, Demetrius Williams and Yamon Figurs. With a new offense this season, he is teaching and learning.

"What keeps things fresh for me is just coming out here every day," Mason said. "Being out here with the guys and learning the game of football. There's something you can learn each and every year in this game. If you stop learning, then you might as well quit.

"And I think what motivates a lot of these veterans out here is to learn something new out on the field, and to strive to win that ultimate game, and that's the Super Bowl."

Mason is the quintessential professional. He is one of the team's most respected players, in part because of his work ethic and his fiery attitude. Mason doesn't mince words, either.

He's diplomatic, but if he believes you cross the line, he'll tell you. And if he believes he isn't getting enough passes in a game, he'll tell the coach. So if this training camp was a grind, Mason would say it. Instead, he has helped set the pace.

"You see everyone around you is having fun," Mason said. "No one is crying or whining about it being too hot or the tempo is too fast. Everybody is engaged at practice. Everybody is running to the ball. Everybody is excited to be out here, and that's what you want in a football team. That's what makes a championship football team."

That's part of it, anyway. The Ravens have much work to do offensively. Last season, Mason spent a lot of time in the slot taking advantage of mismatches in which he drew the No. 3 corner or No. 3 safety.

It was a great spot for Mason because he is adept at finding holes and seams in defenses. He had 103 catches for 1,087 yards and five touchdowns, becoming the first player in Ravens history with 100 receptions. But in the Ravens' new offense, Mason has been lining up on the inside and outside. The Ravens are also using a lot of motion.

But the biggest adjustment is getting used to two new quarterbacks in Joe Flacco and second-year player Troy Smith, who are competing against Kyle Boller for the starting job.

"All of them are good," Mason said. "Whether we're in practice, whether we're live or whether we're in walkthroughs, these guys have proven that they can put the ball there, they've proven that they can read defenses and they've proven they can run offenses. So, it doesn't matter to me which one of them plays because I think we have three very good ones."

And they all have Mason. Because he lacks the flash of a Chad Johnson or the mouth of a Terrell Owens, it's hard to believe that Mason was the fourth-leading receiver in catches (345) in the NFL from 2003 to 2006, with only Torry Holt, Johnson and Marvin Harrison having more.

Mason has also been extremely durable, missing only six games throughout his career, none in the last four seasons. But Mason is smart enough to realize no one in the NFL cares about what you did yesterday; it's about what you're going to do today and in the future.

And it's with his usual confidence that he predicts the Ravens will be much better than last year's 5-11 record despite so much youth on offense.

"You can't go off what you did last year, whether you were an 11-5 team or a 5-11 team," Mason said. "You can't do it. This league changes so fast with free agency, so just because you were at the bottom of the league the previous year doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be in the bottom of the league the following year.

"I believe we're going to prove that. We're not going to be the same team. I guarantee you we're going to win more games than [last year]."

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