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Ravens still working on developing receivers

Despite high praise for being one of the best drafting teams in the NFL, the Ravens still have one significant area to improve: developing wide receivers.

They solved the quarterback dilemma in 2008 when they selected Joe Flacco out of Delaware, but the talent at wide receiver hasn't always been there, and has become more glaring in 2013 after the Ravens traded receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers and lost tight end Dennis Pitta to a hip injury.

Since the team began play in Baltimore in 1996, only two of the 20 receivers selected in the draft, Jermaine Lewis (1996) and Torrey Smith (2011), have had a significant impact.

"We've made our mistakes in scouting in all positions throughout the years, not just receiver," said Eric DeCosta, the Ravens assistant general manager. "I think receiver is a challenging position to evaluate, but I think we can do better. We have excellent coaches here, but I would say the fault probably lies more in scouting.

"We just haven't always picked the right guy."

It has been a Who's Who of failures from first round busts like Travis Taylor and Mark Clayton to so called "sleepers" who slept their careers away like Clarence Moore, Patrick Johnson, Ron Johnson, Demetrius Williams and Justin Harper.

Some of these players had flashes of brilliance, but those moments were overshadowed by long periods of inconsistency.

"Statistically, it is one of the toughest positions in the NFL as far as evaluating players," DeCosta said. "It is a big learning curve from college football to the NFL, totally different in terms of reading coverages, playing against much better cornerbacks, practice tempo, durability, absorbing the big hit and staying on the field consistently.

"Some guys can do some of those things really well, but finding a guy who can do all of those things well is the challenge," he said. "Most college receivers are not as skilled as they need to be. Guys like Travis and Mark, both players did things well at times and other times not as well as they had hoped. Others guys had big games, but didn't produce as much as expected."

But it isn't all about scouting. There are other intangibles, like the number of coordinators and the round in which the receivers were chosen. Since moving from Cleveland, the Ravens have had six offensive coordinators, seven if you include former head coach Brian Billick who called plays at one time.

Of the 20 receivers drafted, only six were selected in the first, second or third rounds. There weren't any Jerry Rice's or Wes Welker's that emerged from those late round picks.

"Continuity on the coaching staff is critical to developing players at any position. We see that over and over again, it's one of the common threads among successful teams," DeCosta said. "Players understand what the expectations are. There is a program in place from top to bottom. It benefits the players' greatly because everyone speaks the same language and it cuts down on the learning curve."

Because of the team's success, the Ravens have had few opportunities to select a "can't miss" receiver early in the first round like Houston's Andre Johnson (third overall pick) or Detroit's Calvin Johnson (second overall pick). Receivers are in the same classification as left tackles and quarterbacks, and the great ones are taken early.

The Ravens also had to deal with the revolving door at quarterback with 14 different starters having played here in the team's 18 years. Usually with every great receiver there is a great quarterback.

"When you've got a Peyton Manning throwing the ball to you, it helps your development," DeCosta said. "We have Joe and he really likes working with the young players. We also have a creative offensive coordinator and a great receivers coach. I'm excited about them and some of the young receivers we have in here right now."

DeCosta is talking about rookies Marlon Brown and Aaron Mellette. Brown started for the Ravens against Denver last week and caught a 13 -yard touchdown pass. He played well in the preseason, and has left little doubt that he has fully recovered from a major knee injury he suffered during his last season at Georgia.

Brown is a rookie free agent while Mellette is a seventh round pick out of Elon. Mellette is regarded more as a project and was placed on injured reserve Wednesday due to a knee injury.

"Aaron is a late round guy, a small school player who is big and fast and was very productive," DeCosta said. "We had a chance to see him at the senior bowl against better competition and he made some plays. Marlon Brown was coming off a serious knee injury, but he was very productive in college before the injury. He has a very good skill set and we were very fortunate to get him as an undrafted free agent. "

"Torrey is a good example of what it looks like when the system works," DeCosta said. "I think with Brown, Mellette and Deonte Thompson, we have some good home grown receivers who we think can develop. It's great when you can get a receiver in third, fourth or fifth round and he develops. It's a huge thing for an organization."

Especially for an organization that hasn't developed many.

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