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Breshad Perriman giving Ravens reason for cautious optimism

Ravens wide receiver Breshad Perriman talks about his health and why he changed his jersey number to No. 11. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

Ravens wide receiver Breshad Perriman sold cornerback Sheldon Price on an out route toward the sideline before he cut up field. Quarterback Joe Flacco didn't let the ball go immediately, giving Price time to close the gap. When Flacco's pass finally arrived in the back of the end zone, Perriman contorted his body to make the catch over Price and then tapped his two feet inbounds as a referee signaled a touchdown.

Team officials and fans have envisioned Perriman making these types of acrobatic catches since the Ravens selected him in the first round of the 2015 draft. The best sign of the third-year wide receiver's progress from Thursday's organized team activities, though, came moments later when Perriman, guarded closely along the sideline by cornerback Jimmy Smith, turned at the exact moment the ball was on him and made a back-shoulder catch of a Flacco pass.

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The catch earned him a congratulatory pat from Smith and was the latest example of Perriman's improving rapport with Flacco after the two weren't often on the same page last season.

"You look at Breshad out here and nobody, I think, is having a better camp than him so far," Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta said after Thursday's workout. "He's making big plays everywhere, catching everything thrown his way."

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OTAs certainly can be a tease. There's no contact allowed in the not-padded practices, and most of the players are on the field in jerseys and shorts. For Perriman, though, any positive reinforcement for the work he has put in is appreciated. It also is nice to be talking about making plays rather than being injured.

"I feel great, and I'm just really going out there and having fun," Perriman said.

Perriman's two-plus years with the Ravens rarely have been fun. While this could be a make-or-break season for the 23-year-old from Georgia, he has already been tested both emotionally and physically.

As a rookie, he tore the PCL in his right knee in the team's first full-squad practice of training camp and an injury that was initially labeled as day-to-day cost him his entire first season. A year later, he partially tore the ACL in his right knee on the final day of OTAs.

He returned to the field during training camp and wound up playing all 16 regular-season games for the Ravens, making 33 catches for 499 yards and three touchdowns. However, his timing with Flacco was off, partially a result of the two rarely being on the practice field together last summer, and Perriman conceded his focus wasn't entirely on football at all times.

His father, former NFL wide receiver Brett Perriman, suffered a major stroke last May and his health and recovery was constantly on his son's mind. Perriman was also still coming to grips with the offseason death of Ravens cornerback Tray Walker, whose close friendship and support helped the wide receiver get through a difficult rookie year.

Perriman's father has made a remarkable recovery, and Perriman acknowledged Thursday that he's able to play so much freer and looser with the injuries and off-field worries behind him.

However, he hasn't totally distanced himself from the past. Perriman recently changed his number from 18 to 11, which he wore during his college career at Central Florida, because he "did big things with this number," and wanted "to get back in it."

"I feel like my concentration level is at a pretty high level right now — an all-time high," Perriman said. "Right now, I'm just going out there, and when I'm on the field, I'm not thinking about anything but football."

Perriman is especially pleased with where his chemistry is with Flacco, saying it has improved tremendously and the two are in a "great place" right now.

Harbaugh acknowledged that Perriman, who spent significant time this offseason working on his intermediate route running, has had a "really good three days" before expanding it to include the wide receiver's efforts and improvements during the offseason workout program.

"He's had a really good five weeks. He looks very healthy, he looks very fast," Harbaugh said. "He beat Jimmy one time and I asked Jimmy about it and he goes, 'Hey man, I think I would have pulled my hamstring if I had chased him right there.' [Perriman] eats up a lot of ground. He's running routes very well and he's catching the ball well, but again, he's got to keep building, keep stacking."

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It's understandable why Ravens officials would be cautious in their praise of Perriman, given his injury problems and his inconsistency last season. However, they've already showed much faith in Perriman, along with the other young Ravens pass catchers, by not adding any wide receivers of note this offseason despite losing Steve Smith Sr. (retirement) and Kamar Aiken (free agency).

There's still a decent chance the Ravens trade for a wide receiver before training camp or add one in free agency, although the shallow pool of available talent at the position was thinned even more with veteran Victor Cruz signing with the Chicago Bears on Thursday.

Even if they do add a wide receiver, the Ravens seem committed to getting Perriman on the field more and allowing him to work through some of the difficulties he has had in his route running and ball skills.

"It's big just for them to not get anybody in the draft or on the free-agent market," Perriman said. "It just shows that they have confidence in what we have here, and so does everyone here. We've got some good receivers on this team, and we know that we can get the job done."

Flacco and Mike Wallace, the team's top returner in receiving yards and touchdowns, have been vocal with their thoughts about the team already having enough firepower in the passing game to be a dynamic offense. They've touted the young receiving corps, which includes Perriman, Chris Moore and Michael Campanaro (River Hill), and indicated the Ravens will surprise some people. Wallace has been effusive with his praise of Perriman.

It has been dismissed by some as false optimism and given some of the struggles the Ravens have had developing young wide receivers, the skepticism is understandable. Though on days like Thursday, in an otherwise routine and largely uneventful OTA practice, Perriman provided a reason for excitement.

"He understands that he's got a big job, a big role to fill this year," Pitta said. "He's focused and working hard and he's been stepping up. You can't have anything but confidence in the way he's looked this year."

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