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Mike Preston: Wallace leading the way for Ravens' receiving corps

Ravens wide receiver Mike Wallace walked into the locker room Tuesday and received a lot of happy birthday congratulations from his teammates.

Someone then asked Wallace his age and without hesitation he replied, “my prime.”

In the first six days of the Ravens 2017 training camp few would disagree. Despite being 31, the age when a lot of players are on the downside of their careers or retired, Wallace has been the team’s top and most-consistent offensive weapon.

He looks fresher than he did a year ago at this time. And he could put up better numbers than he did in 2016 when he finished with 72 receptions for 1,017 yards and four touchdowns. The 72 catches were one below his career high of 73 with the Miami Dolphins in 2013.

“When guys are motivated like that, those are the guys you want to see – the guys that are older, but they still have that drive, and he’s got that,” said Ravens Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda. “So I’m excited about it, and I love the attitude he brings every day.

“He’s a positive influence. He’s not a whiner guy; he’s not a complainer guy. He’s a grinder. So I’m a Mike Wallace fan.”

Wallace showed some negative characteristics at the end of last season. He was frustrated at times because he didn’t get the ball more often and was justified because quarterback Joe Flacco threw more to his check-down receivers than down field.

But that’s normal behavior for any good receiver in the NFL. They all complain about perceived lack of touches.

Regardless, Wallace’s had one of the best years of his eight-year career and his 403 yards after the catch was No. 11 among active receivers. Those statistics were compiled as the No. 2 receiver behind top star Steve Smith Sr., who retired at the end of last season.

This year Wallace is No. 1. A year ago, he was the splint end but has moved to flanker, which means he will run more comeback, curl and the sideline routes instead of just being a speedster who ran a lot of vertical, slant-ins or clearing stuff underneath.

Wallace loves every minute of it.

“I just want the ball. That’s when I am happy, that’s any receiver,” said Wallace, who played his first four years with the Steelers. “Where I’m playing now I get to run more routes, run more in the middle of the field. You have guys on the same side of the field but they space it out more for you.”

Wallace has also accepted Smith’s role as a team leader. As a younger receiver Wallace showed great respect to Smith. When they were on the field together Smith was the teacher and Wallace was the student. When Smith retired, Wallace became the elder statesman. They both have the same competitive edge and talk a lot of trash, but Wallace just isn’t as loud.

“I feel like he’s been more vocal, especially on the offensive side,” said Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley. “He’s not saying too much against us unless he’s going deep and taking a deep ball to the end zone. But right now, you just see his presence, and he’s getting a little more hyped. If something’s not going right, he’s talking to the guys, and that’s what it’s all about right now.

“You want to make the plays you can, but you also want to make sure that you lead the young guys in the right direction and set a good example on the field – running to the ball or finishing a block downfield if you’re not getting it and obviously making plays.”

Wallace is careful not to try to act like Smith. In practices so far he runs every pattern hard even when he isn’t the primary receiver. He is making blocks and fighting hard for every pass thrown to him.

Compared to a year ago, he is more animated.

“Steve taught me how to take control and ownership of everything,” Wallace said. “We’re the ones that play, not the coaches. You can’t rely on anybody but the guys on the field to go out and make plays.

“But my role has changed now not just because Steve is gone, but I’ve been here for a year and I feel comfortable doing this because I know everyone.”

Wallace likes the Ravens’ blend of experience and youth at the receiver positions. Jeremy Maclin is a seven-year veteran who will get plenty of playing time with third-year performer, speedster Breshad Perriman. The Ravens also have two other speedsters in second-year player Chris Moore and Tim White, an undrafted rookie free agent from Arizona State.

 “I think we can be the best, we have three guys who can really play and four or five guys who can start or get a lot of playing time with other teams,” Wallace said. “People are going to doubt us but they will see.”

This group does have something to prove. Wallace has to show he can be a No. 1 again. Maclin and Perriman both need to prove they can stay healthy. Moore and White have potential, but aren’t consistent yet.

But Wallace is off to a great start. He spent the offseason in Houston working out several times a day with 12 other NFL players. According to Yanda, Wallace “crushed” coach John Harbaugh’s conditioning test looking like he had rediscovered his youth.

 Maybe he has.

“You can’t take a play off, can’t take a day off,” Wallace said, “regardless of the situation, if it is hot, muggy, humid, whatever. You don’t want to take anything for granted. We’ve already lost six or seven guys for the entire season so you don’t want to go through the motions. You never know when this is going to be your last day.

 “You can’t play forever.”

 In the last six days, Wallace looks like he could.

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