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Thursday, June 4, 2009
Ravens' weakness: Receivers

By James Walker
ESPN.com

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson

Scouts Inc.: Weaknesses
AFC: N | S | E | W
NFC: N | S
In a somewhat shocking lack of moves, the Ravens did not sign a wide receiver in free agency. They also did not select one in the draft. L.J. Smith was signed to add into the tight end mix, but that is hardly the major pass-catching upgrade that many expected to help aid second-year quarterback Joe Flacco improve upon a successful rookie season in which Baltimore advanced to the AFC Championship Game.

Derrick Mason rarely gets mentioned as one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, but his consistency and numbers are outstanding. Flacco leaned on him heavily -- sometimes too heavily -- last season and clearly this is the go-to option in Baltimore's passing attack. While Mason remains very effective, he is a niche player who doesn't create a lot of big plays. He's also coming off a shoulder injury, which cannot be overlooked at 35 years old. This offense needs to showcase Flacco's giant right arm more frequently, while forcing opposing coverages to honor the deep ball more than they have in the past.

 
  George Gojkovich/Getty Images
  The Ravens relied too heavily on receiver Derrick Mason last season.
Mark Clayton had somewhat of a bounce back season in 2008, re-establishing himself as a vertical threat, averaging 17 yards per reception. Clayton isn't the most physical player, but he is good with the ball in his hands and has big play ability downfield or after the catch. While this former first-round pick progressed last season, he does need to step up further and take advantage of the favorable coverages he faces, as nearly every defense stacks the box against Baltimore and also tends to put their best cover man on Mason. There is a lot of pressure on Clayton to come through in what is his contract year. He is capable, but must be more consistent on a week to week basis.

Demetrius Williams missed much of the 2008 season and he could compete with Clayton for the starting spot opposite Mason. Durability is a major issue with Williams, but he has much better size than Mason or Clayton and has shown that he can play big with his ability to elevate for the ball. Ozzie Newsome clearly knows his team and is an excellent evaluator of talent. Williams might be someone who Newsome has higher hopes for in 2009 than many realize.

Todd Heap also has major durability issues. Years of battling injuries have slowed Heap even on his best days at this stage of his career. He now blocks more than he has in the past and no longer can be considered a major difference maker as a pass catcher.

Smith is also a difficult guy to count on. Reliability and durability are not his better traits. However, a change of scenery may do this talented tight end some good.

The Ravens' defense took a few personnel hits this offseason and losing Rex Ryan cannot be understated. Baltimore should remain quite strong on that side of the ball -- along with their special teams -- but a minor defensive drop off seems quite possible. While the offense is fueled by a power running game and the offensive line could be even better than a year ago, more will be needed from the passing game for the Ravens to eclipse the Steelers as the top dog in the AFC North. Right now, there is plenty of uncertainty as to whether or not this group of pass catchers is up to that task.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.