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With crowded and confident receiver class, Ravens have decisions to make in first round

A decade ago, one of the most accomplished wide receivers in college football history, a two-time unanimous All-American for a Big 12 contender, was picked after a player who’d never finished with 800 receiving yards in a season.

The names are familiar to those in Baltimore. The No. 7 overall pick in that 2009 draft: former McDonogh star and Maryland speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey. Going three picks after him: Michael Crabtree, one of only two two-time winners of the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver.

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As Ravens officials headed to the NFL scouting combine this week, desperately searching for a game-breaking wide receiver, their release of Crabtree on Monday could have served as a referendum on the sudden fall of a player once hailed as a future great. More valuable, however, might be the lessons learned from that receiver-heavy first round.

Heyward-Bey and Crabtree are the only ones remaining in the NFL, the former as a special teams standout, the latter as a possession receiver. Jeremy Maclin (No. 19 overall) and Percy Harvin (No. 22) both made one Pro Bowl but haven't played since 2017 and 2016, respectively. Hakeem Nicks (No. 29) is out of the league. So is Kenny Britt (No. 30). All but Heyward-Bey and Harvin had at least one 1,000-yard season.

A crowded class produced a lot of good, but little great. And the Ravens have long sought greatness in their rookie receivers.

When the top wide receivers in this year’s draft class met with reporters Friday in Indianapolis, none were bashful about thumping their chest and proclaiming themselves the best wideout of the group. At this point, five seem like realistic first-round possibilities. The Ravens’ challenge is twofold: determining who’s actually worthy of their first-round pick, No. 22 overall, then having the chance to pick them.

“We’ve got to add playmakers,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said Wednesday. “Guys that can work with Lamar, take pressure off of Lamar and make plays in key situations. That’ll always be a priority for us moving forward.”

Trouble is, the draft’s most touted receivers might all be NFL-level playmakers.

Mississippi redshirt sophomore D.K. Metcalf, at 6 feet 3 and 228 pounds, reportedly has 1.6 percent body fat. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 27 times. His father, former guard Terrence Metcalf, played in the NFL. So did cousins Eric Metcalf, a former running back-receiver, and Terry Metcalf, a former running back.

And the best of the clan?

“I'm gonna say me every day,” he said.

Metcalf didn’t have any hesitation about playing for a team like the Ravens, either. He said his experience with former Rebels and current Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson taught him how to play with someone who, like Lamar Jackson, can extend the play outside the pocket.

“It’s just something you’ve got to adapt to and, you know, learn as we go along,” he said.

Metcalf’s training mate, teammate and close friend, A.J. Brown, could go before him. He picked up Metcalf's slack after he went down midseason with a neck injury, finishing with 85 catches for 1,320 receiving yards, seventh most nationally.

"Personally, I'm the best receiver in the draft, by far,” he said. “I'm versatile. I can play inside and outside. I run great routes. I have strong hands and I'm a man after the catch. A lot of guys aren't like that. I'm very different."

Other receivers made their cases for top billing. Arizona State junior N’Keal Harry, who had 1,000-plus receiving yards each of the past two seasons, matched Metcalf’s awesome performance on the bench press. He doesn’t mind pushing defenders around, whether it’s cornerbacks in press coverage or whoever he meets in run blocking.

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“I’m the type of player who likes to impose my will on the other team, especially on smaller corners,” Harry said. “If they need me to block a lot, I’d have no problem doing that.”

North Carolina State wide receiver Kelvin Harmon (81 catches for 1,186 yards in 2018) said ball skills separate him from the pack. To him, 50-50 throws are more like 90-10 propositions.

Oklahoma wide receiver Marquise Brown, a first-team All-American whose foot injury will keep him from participating in the combine, said he “can play outside, take a comeback and take it to the house. I can go outside, take an out, take it to the house. I feel that I can play both pretty well.”

The players might be footnotes in Baltimore by May. The Ravens could decide they have more pressing needs elsewhere. Other teams could get to the players before DeCosta can.

But the big-name players at Lucas Oil Stadium all said they were The Next Big Thing. It’s on the Ravens to figure out who’s telling the truth.

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