The group of wide receivers that took the field nearly a month ago for the Ravens’ first full-squad practice of training camp was an eclectic mix of veterans, young players trying to establish themselves as NFL regulars and undrafted free agents just hoping to catch somebody’s eye.
The competition for two or three open receiver slots behind proven commodities Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin and 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman was expected to be one of the fiercest position battles in camp. However, injuries and uneven performances have prevented the competition from really materializing.
That figures to change starting with Saturday night’s preseason game against the Buffalo Bills at M&T Bank Stadium and continuing with next Thursday’s preseason finale against the New Orleans Saints. With the roster needing to be cut to 53 by Sept. 2, the Ravens still are unsettled at the fourth, fifth and perhaps sixth receiver spot if they decide to keep that many, creating a sense of urgency among the pass catchers over the next week.
“It’s hot and heavy,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said of the wide receiver competition. “They are all just a little bit different. They have different strengths. These next couple of games are big for the receiver spots.”
Seven players are competing for two or maybe three roster spots. The top competitors for those spots are roster holdovers Michael Campanaro (River Hill), 2016 fourth-round pick Chris Moore, Chris Matthews and rookie undrafted free agent Quincy Adeboyejo.
Then, there’s Griff Whalen, an experienced hand on special teams and in the slot; undrafted rookie C.J. Board, who leads all Ravens in receiving yards this preseason; and sentimental favorite Keenan Reynolds, who has made obvious improvements in his transition from a record-setting college quarterback to an NFL receiver.
“We’re always going to evaluate all the guys that we need to evaluate no matter what happens, no matter what circumstances take place,” coach John Harbaugh said Thursday. “We probably haven’t gotten as many looks at some guys because they’ve had nicks or bumps and bruises. It’s just an individual-type situation. If you’re trying to make a team, you better get out there and play unless you’re a guy that’s got a spot. You need to be out there taking reps and earning your spot.”
As always, injuries have significantly altered the competition. Kenny Bell, who impressed in the offseason minicamps, tore his hamstring early in camp and has since been released. After starring in practices, undrafted rookie Tim White caught a 33-yard touchdown pass in the preseason opener but injured his thumb in that game and is likely out for the season.
Much of the early momentum Adeboyejo built in camp was halted when he went down with a knee injury. He missed only a few practices, but he’s not looked anywhere near 100 percent and that was clear in last week’s preseason game against the Miami Dolphins. He was held without a catch and both of Ryan Mallett’s interceptions came on passes intended for Adeboyejo, including one in which the ex-Mississippi player had the ball ripped out of his hands.
“It shows heart, but coaches want more than that,” Adeboyejo said about playing through the knee injury. “I’m out here giving my all, but it’s not good enough right now. I just have to keep pushing. I have to get back to being 100 percent healthy so I can get back to being me.”
Campanaro, who has dealt with myriad injuries during his Ravens career, appears to be close to a lock for a spot on the 53-man roster. Not only is he one of the team’s top options in the slot, but he also sits atop the punt-return depth chart.
After missing a few practices with the toe injury he suffered in organized team activities, Campanaro has stayed healthy — he missed Thursday’s workout with a personal matter — made plays in practice and led all receivers in catches through the first two preseason games.
“I’m just very fortunate to be out here healthy and playing,” Campanaro said. “When I’m 100 percent out here playing, I think I can bring a different dynamic to the offense and I can make plays and just get open and do a lot for us on special teams. I just have to keep progressing and keep getting better. But I’m extremely excited for this team and just to be healthy out here playing.”
Other healthy receivers around Campanaro have lost a little footing in the wide receiver competition. Once viewed as a near roster lock, Moore is now seemingly on the roster bubble. He has one catch for 11 yards in two preseason games and didn’t stand out during training camp practices.
Neither Matthews nor Reynolds has caught a pass in the preseason, and Whalen and Board haven’t really stood out on a consistent basis in practice.
The receivers who have gotten ample opportunities in the preseason with Wallace and Maclin playing little and Perriman out with a hamstring injury are running out of time to make an impression.
“This is an opportunity to make the team these last couple of games,” said Moore, who caught seven balls for 46 yards in 15 games last year, getting most of his action on special teams. “I just have to keep making more plays every day, keep getting better and try to earn my spot on the team.”
Said Adeboyejo: “I’m definitely excited to play. I just have to get back healthy, get back to playing as I was. It’s as simple as it gets.”
Last year, the Ravens kept six receivers on their regular-season opening roster, but one of them, Devin Hester Sr., was exclusively a returner. Special teams play will again factor prominently in determining the last couple of spots.
That bodes well for Matthews, who plays on several of the special teams units, and Campanaro and Moore, who were the primary return men for parts of last season.
Either way, Wallace is confident the coaching staff will find the right mix.
“I have the most confidence in the world. We have ballers in our group. No matter if we have guys here or [in the] training room, we are going to be OK,” Wallace said. “Whenever they step on the field, we are going to be fine. We are going to have guys who step up and make plays in the absence of those other guys. I feel totally confident — 1,000 percent.”