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Jaguars have the kind of young receivers the Ravens are searching for

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
The Ravens should probably envy the Jaguars' young receiving corps.

As the head coach of a Ravens organization whose one long-standing issue is drafting and developing wide receivers, John Harbaugh knows how challenging it is to grow college standouts into professional pass catchers.

Hundreds of players coming out of college each year have the physical tools to succeed in the NFL. But it has proven difficult to find out which ones can master the pro scheme, with its expansive route trees and complex, read-and-react passing offenses.

To bypass some of that uncertainty and ensure a return on the valuable draft picks they've spent on receivers, the Jacksonville Jaguars' new regime under coach Gus Bradley and general manager Dave Caldwell created a scheme that allowed their young receivers to grow into one of the game's most feared groups after just 24 games together.

"We tried to incorporate an offense that allowed guys … to play at a young age, and [they] could play fast at a young age," Bradley said on a conference call with local reporters this week.

"We understand issues that are created with it, but we're trying to build a team that can sustain being successful year-in and year-out, rather than the flashes. … We're starting to see some guys play at a high level at a young age, and I think the team has a lot of trust that [if] we just keep going, eventually it will come."

On Sunday, that will stand in contrast with the Ravens' group of largely street free agents left in the absence of injured veteran Steve Smith Sr. and first-round pick Breshad Perriman.

As a perennial AFC contender, the Ravens haven't had the chance to simplify things to allow them to bring a large group of young skill-position players along the way the Jaguars have.

Because they've struggled for nearly a decade to get out of the bottom of the NFL each year, Jacksonville had the luxury of simplifying things to overcome that uncertainty Harbaugh knows so well.

After drafting quarterback Blake Bortles third overall in 2014, Jacksonville selected a pair of high-ceiling wide receivers with their next two picks, Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee. They also added former Miami Hurricanes star Allen Hurns as an undrafted free agent in 2014, and two more young receivers this year.

Though Lee has struggled with injuries, they've formed the best NFL's best young receiving group. ProFootballFocus.com ranked the Jaguars as the second-best receiving corps in the NFL, with an average age of just over 24 years old.

Hurns has 36 catches for 635 yards and six touchdowns. Robinson has 707 yards and six scores on 40 receptions. They're the first pair to have over 600 yards and six touchdowns each through eight games since Randy Moss and Wes Welker did it for the prolific 2007 New England Patriots.

Bortles said this week that it's "super special to be able to come in with those guys as rookies and to able to go through and grow and watch those guys grow."

"They're awesome to be around, and they're getting better each and every week," Bortles said. "It's fun to watch and be a part of."

On the opposite side, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco never had that young receiving group to grow with, mostly relying on veterans like Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Smith Sr. Even before he and Harbaugh arrived in Baltimore in 2008, the Ravens' approach to building a receiving corps hasn't often involved high draft picks.

This year's first-round pick, Perriman, was just the second receiver taken before the fourth round in Harbaugh's time here. They've selected a receiver in each of Harbaugh's eight years, save for 2009, but often in the late rounds, and have little to show for it.

Heading into this year's draft, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was defensive about his draft history at the position. He pointed to the production of 2011 second-round pick Torrey Smith, though disappointments like Mark Clayton (Round 1, 2004) and Travis Taylor (Round 1, 2000) stand out to fans.

His latest attempt to change that narrative, Perriman, hasn't played an NFL snap yet after a sprained PCL suffered on the first day of training camp has lingered for three-and-a-half months. And their veteran stopgap, leading receiver Steve Smith Sr., is out for the season with torn Achilles.

That leaves the Ravens in an unenviable spot going forward. Four of their five active, healthy receivers — Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown, Jeremy Butler, and Joe Morgan — were undrafted free agents. The fifth, Chris Givens, was a former fourth-round pick acquired last month from the St. Louis Rams.

Givens said there's a "big chip" on everyone's shoulder because of the perception that they won't be able to get the job done. A Jacksonville area reporter on Harbaugh's press conference said the group doesn't look dangerous, something Harbaugh assured he would pass along.

Their lack of pedigree is a point of pride at this point, Aiken said.

"We look at it like the whole room is undrafted, we're not supposed to be here, we're not supposed to be able to catch a ball, we're not supposed to be able to win a route against this corner," Aiken said. "We're not supposed to do all these things, but we're here doing them. We look at it as we're going to go out there and prove the world wrong as a group."

Aiken, who bounced around several practice squads before catching on with the Ravens, said the main difference between receivers with high draft pedigrees and undrafted players like himself is opportunity, though he marvels at how quickly Hurns became a star.

"If you're a high draft pick, they kind of label you to be the guy — that's the reason why they draft you. You automatically come in to be the guy," he said. "If you're undrafted, it's like, 'We'll see what he can do. If he has a spark, we'll see more of what he can do.' It's up to you after that."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/JonMeoli

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