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The Ravens are less than a week away from making final decisions for their 53-man roster with no position currently in more flux than wide receiver.
After an offseason full of discussion around a young but unproven group of wide receivers, the preseason has provided little knowledge in projecting how the Ravens plan to flourish in the passing game without 2012 key targets Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta. The decision to sign 37-year-old Brandon Stokley and 34-year-old tight end Dallas Clark after the preseason opener was all you needed to know about the level of concern general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh felt after an underwhelming start to the summer for the passing game.
Just days away from the preseason finale that’s likely to feature very few starters, the Ravens have three locks to make the roster at the wide receiver position: Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, and Stokley. Smith remains the only option at the position with which you feel comfortable while Jones’ speed and Stokley’s ability to move the chains from the slot receiver position are specialized skills that will work well in different formations.
After that? Unknown commodities and unfulfilled promise fill out the rest of the pack.
Aaron Mellette and Marlon Brown? A 2013 seventh-round pick and a rookie free agent respectively.
LaQuan Williams? A solid special-teams player but inconsistent as a wide receiver in both practices and preseason games.
Deonte Thompson? Injured since the preseason opener.
And Tandon Doss? He’s become the whipping boy of a concerned fan base after a very disappointing summer.
The discussion over who stays and who goes has heated up over the last couple weeks as fans and media alike try to predict how many receivers will make the regular-season roster.
“I’m not quite certain of what the numbers will be,” offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. “That’s John and Ozzie — they take care of that. They look at it and determine [and] look at the entire team.”
While many fixate on a given number of receivers to make the final roster — five, six, even seven? — the Ravens look at the roster from a global view in determining which 53 players will be the best fit to win games in 2013. As unlikely as it might be, all eight receivers could make it through final cuts if Harbaugh and his staff determine they contribute enough both offensively and through special teams.
Caldwell has even suggested that strength in numbers might be the unit’s best bet while also providing more time to determine which receivers build the best rapport with quarterback Joe Flacco in the early weeks of the season. Eight receivers would certainly be a stretch, but it’s not difficult envisioning scenarios in which seven wideouts crack the 53-man roster without too much trouble.
It comes down to special-teams play, team health, and positional needs — or the lack of needs — elsewhere.
“There could be a situation where we’re using quite a few guys at the wide receiver position, which I think is a plus for us because it helps us mix up personnel packages,” Caldwell said. “We do have some versatility because we have a number of guys who can play multiple positions.”
With that in mind, it’s time to make the case for and against each of the five wide receivers projected to be on the roster bubble.
Each receiver’s career NFL regular-season numbers are noted in parentheses.
Tandon Doss (seven catches, 123 yards, 20 targets)
The case for: The Ravens typically don’t give up on their high draft picks easily and the 2011 fourth-round pick has practiced well at different points over the last three years despite a very underwhelming preseason performance of just two catches for 10 yards and a touchdown in three games this summer. He hasn’t stepped up in the manner the Ravens had hoped in filling Boldin’s shoes as the slot receiver, but the rest of the bunch hasn’t outperformed him so dramatically to make him out to be the slam-dunk cut that some critics have made him out to be over the last few days. Another factor helping Doss’ case for a roster spot is the lack of a healthy option behind Stokley as a slot receiver in the passing game with Thompson currently injured. He’s shown good hands and route-running ability in practices, which still counts for something despite magnified mistakes in preseason games.
The case against: It never speaks well for your future when two rookies appear to have leapfrogged you on the depth chart after Brown and Mellette saw playing time before Doss against Carolina in the third preseason game. His inability to recognize a blitz led to a Flacco interception against the Panthers, and the third-year wideout didn’t exactly come across as a player trying to take accountability in his explanation after the game. Doss can serve as a backup punt returner, but his ability to play special teams is very limited beyond that. Of the five players currently on the bubble at the position, he has received the greatest number of opportunities and has done very little with them, making you wonder how much patience the Ravens have left. Expectations were high for him, but he’s performed poorly in the preseason.
Marlon Brown (rookie)
The case for: The undrafted product did what no other young receiver had done all summer last Thursday when he took advantage of an opportunity to work with the starting offense by making four catches for 59 yards and a touchdown against the Panthers. You can’t teach 6-foot-5 height, and Brown has shown the potential to be the tall red-zone target the Ravens envisioned with the selection of the recently-cut Tommy Streeter in the sixth round of the 2012 draft. Brown runs solid routes and has shown consistent hands for much of the summer in both practices and games while working his way back from a torn ACL suffered last fall. His performance in a nationally-televised preseason game makes it highly unlikely that he will clear waivers to allow the Ravens to sign him to their practice squad as they may have planned a couple weeks ago.
The case against: It’s important to remember one preseason performance means very little in the big picture as the Ravens aren’t exactly sure how Brown will fit in the short-term future or whether he will pan out in the long term. Despite being a five-star recruit for the University of Georgia, he didn’t exactly live up to expectations playing in the SEC, the greatest stage college football has to offer. Brown has occasionally missed some practice time this summer while working his way back to 100 percent, so that will be something to watch in his first season in the NFL where rookies can often hit the proverbial wall late in the 16-game schedule.
Aaron Mellette (rookie)