The New England Patriots won't be the only opponent the Ravens' trio of rookie wide receivers will face Thursday night.
Nerves, pressure and competition are the other pressing issues for Marcus Smith, Justin Harper and Ernie Wheelwright. But as anxious as those three will be about suiting up for their first NFL preseason game, getting to this stage puts them closer to a lifelong objective.
"This is the NFL. This is what you've waited for your entire life," Smith said. "All of those things you did before, this is what it's leading to. It's an audition for all of the rookies across the NFL. So whatever you do out there is either going to be helpful or detrimental to what you're trying to do the rest of the season."
All three say they will be apprehensive in the hours leading up to Thursday's 7:30 p.m. start. Smith and Wheelwright will slip on their iPods (Smith likes Luther Vandross and Boyz II Men; Wheelwright prefers Tupac and 50 Cent), while Harper will sit down with his Bible and seek solace in Psalms 139.
Four-year veteran Mark Clayton knows how the three rookies will feel. He went through the same roller coaster of emotions before his first exhibition game against the Atlanta Falcons in 2005.
"I was nervous, too," recalled Clayton, who caught one pass for 6 yards against the Falcons. "I was confident, but I was nervous. I think nerves just come with it. I don't consider nerves as a bad thing. You're here because we know you can make plays. Once you suppress those nerves, you'll be fine."
The Ravens have tried to acclimate the wide receivers - and the team in general - by running practices at McDaniel College in Westminster under game-time conditions. A 40-second play clock has been installed behind both end zones, and the coaches are constantly reminding the players to race back to the huddle and get to the line of scrimmage.
"We talk to them every day about what this environment is like in practice and what it's really going to be like in a game," wide receivers coach Jim Hostler said. "The speed, the tempo, the violence - all of that is going to go up. So they've got to be prepared and ready for that. Then they've got to respond to it once they realize that things are moving a lot faster."
The coaching staff doesn't expect the trio to turn in identical 100-yard receiving games and a touchdown apiece.
What is expected is execution within the game plan installed by offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. That means running precise routes, blocking downfield and catching the ball when the opportunity arises.
"We're going to try to execute our fundamentals and our techniques, what we've been working since they got there in the offseason," Hostler said. "Now the key is to do that in a very fast, high-pressure, violent environment. That's the step they have to take next."
Pressure is another obstacle. Not only are the wide receivers tangling with the Patriots, but they also are competing with one another for a roster spot with the Ravens.
With Derrick Mason, Demetrius Williams, Yamon Figurs and Clayton considered safe, the rookies are battling with former Redskin Darnerien McCants (Arundel), Matt Willis and Kerry Reed for what figures to be no more than three spots on the active roster. (Rookie Patrick Carter hasn't practiced in a week because of a dislocated left shoulder and won't play Thursday.)
Smith catches nearly every pass thrown in his direction, while Harper, 6 feet 3, 215 pounds, is a deceptively quick receiver with deep-threat potential.
Although Smith and Harper were fourth- and seventh-round picks, respectively, in April's NFL draft, Wheelwright, an undrafted rookie who signed with the Ravens, is a big target (6-5, 220) who could excel in the red zone.
"We're just trying to show them whatever we can do to make this team," Harper said. "They picked me, and they've got expectations. I've got expectations of myself as well. So it's all about me going in there and making plays."
All three rookies said they can't concern themselves with their positions on the team's depth chart or even whether they have caught the eye of another team. All they can do is deal with the present.
"You know what's expected of you, and you know what your teammates expect of you," Smith said. "All you've got to do now is go out there and do it."
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. TV: Ch. 11, MASN Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM