OWINGS MILLS, Md. — You can easily be fooled by what you observe during spring football practice, but the Ravens’ young group of wide receivers displayed much to like over the last month.
It would be unwise to guarantee that the Ravens won’t experience any growing pains at the position following the free-agent departure of Torrey Smith, but there are many reasons to be intrigued with the upside of the group. More than a few showed their talents before the Ravens wrapped up their mandatory minicamp on Thursday, now turning their attention toward the start of training camp in less than six weeks.
“They come in all different sizes, certainly, and we have them here,” said offensive coordinator Marc Trestman of the young receivers. “But at the end of the day, it’s the guys that are really specialists that know how to get off the line and get open, and particularly when it’s bump-and-run, because that’s when it’s usually crunch time.”
Of course, introducing the threat of contact will be the real test as countless receivers over the years have shown ability while knowing they aren’t about to be leveled by a hard-hitting defensive back or linebacker over the middle. This time of the year always favors the offense with defensive players lagging behind until the pads serve as the equalizer beginning in late July.
Perhaps the most comforting aspect about the group that allows so much optimism is the man who spent the entire spring mentoring them while continuing to look like the best player on the field in the process.
While other notable veterans skipped voluntary organized team activities and didn’t arrive in Owings Mills until this week’s mandatory minicamp, the 36-year-old Steve Smith spent the last month working with the likes of rookies Breshad Perriman and Darren Waller as well as helping young receivers such as Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown. It’s easy to like your potential at a position when a seasoned commodity with five Pro Bowl selections and 13,000 receiving yards remains at the head of the class.
“He put in the time physically and he put in the time mentally to really grasp the changes that we were making and further enhance how he understood this offense,” wide receivers coach Bobby Engram said. “And, when he pulls a young guy aside, they’re going to listen. And when they see his work ethic, they better listen. His experience and his leadership has been invaluable not only for the receivers but for our entire team.”
While Smith continues to lead the way at the position, there were three young receivers who stood out this spring in particular.
Selected with the 26th overall pick in the first round of this year’s draft, Perriman has been as advertised with his combination of size and speed, and he appears to be ahead of where Torrey Smith was at this point in his rookie season. The Ravens made no secret about their desire to work him hard this spring as the Central Florida product consistently took reps with the first, second, and third-team offenses during practices, often battling fatigue to make sensational catches.
He wasn’t perfect as he suffered some drops from time to time — it hasn’t been a chronic issue — but the 6-foot-2 rookie feels good about his place in Trestman’s offense and adjusted well to the speed of the game when the full squad reported for practices this past week.
“I just like how they have the ability to move all the receivers around,” Perriman said. “For me, I’m decent at going deep, but at the same time, they have the ability to move me around and put all the receivers in different positions. Everyone can be a slot receiver and run different routes. That’s what I like about it.”
Perriman has drawn the outside attention as the team’s first-round draft pick, but Aiken may have impressed the most this spring with his consistency and strong rapport with quarterback Joe Flacco. After rising from anonymity to make last year’s roster, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Aiken caught 24 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns in the regular season while adding another touchdown reception in the playoffs.
It would be premature — and unfair — to label Aiken a poor man’s Anquan Boldin, but perhaps he could be the poor man’s poor man’s version of the former Baltimore receiver, showing good strength and an ability to make catches in traffic. He is the current leader in the clubhouse to start opposite Smith — the Ravens almost always defer to their veterans over rookies to begin preseason competitions — but Aiken figures to be a meaningful part of the passing game, regardless of where he lands on the depth chart by the time September rolls around.
Aiken said this spring that he has never lacked confidence, but last year’s success has made him comfortable in preparing to just be himself instead of trying to do too much to make the roster as he was forced to do earlier in his career. Whether beginning the year as a starter or succumbing to Perriman, Aiken is confident he’s a good fit in a critical portion of the field.
“I like going across the middle, so I’ve never feared a route going across the middle,” Aiken said. “I feel like that’s where you make your money at. But [the coaches] do a lot of good things as far as mix and matching, just putting us in different areas [where we are] able to run different routes.”
While Perriman and Aiken have already become household names for Ravens fans, the biggest wild card could end up being Jeremy Butler, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve after turning a few heads during last summer’s training camp. It wasn’t a coincidence that Baltimore took advantage of Butler’s late-summer shoulder injury to stash him on IR, which essentially gave the Tennessee-Martin product a “redshirt” season to learn and improve.
At 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, Butler earned plenty of praise for his consistent hands over the last month. And while there have been many young players over the years to have good springs before disappearing in training camp and the preseason, it’s worth paying attention to Butler this summer after quiet acclaim from coaches last year and the compliments offered by Smith and Flacco this week.
If anything, Butler figures to offer some strong competition for Aiken in the slot as he occasionally received some first-team reps over these last few weeks.
“He might have had 1,500 yards in a three-day minicamp. He was incredible,” Flacco said. “He caught the ball extremely well. [He has] little things here and there to work on, but the biggest thing is catching the ball, and I think these guys are doing a really good job of that.”
With the ageless veteran Smith leading the way, the Ravens hope they’ll face some difficult decisions as far as how many receivers they will be able to keep. Perriman is an obvious lock and Aiken is an excellent bet, but how the depth chart plays out after that is anyone’s guess.
You’re always waiting for the 6-foot-5 Brown to take the next step after an impressive 2013 rookie season, but he didn’t do much to stand out this spring — good or bad — and you’d like to see him better utilize his massive frame, especially inside the red zone.
Campanaro has flashed potential as a return man and at receiver, but his latest quadriceps injury creates more doubt about his ability to stay on the field.
A sixth-round pick out of Georgia Tech, the 6-foot-6 Waller has shown promise, but will he develop quickly enough to justify a roster spot as a rookie?
Can rookie free agent DeAndre Carter stand out as a receiver to augment his chances for winning a roster spot and serving as a return specialist?
Of course, not all of these names will pan out, but it’s tough not to like the Ravens’ chances to break camp with a group of young receivers having room to grow, especially with a franchise quarterback in the prime of his career throwing to them. Smith is looking forward to having a front-row seat for the battles this summer as he prepares for his 15th NFL season.
“It’s very competitive,” Smith said. “I’m actually going to sit back and watch it and just root for those guys and see them make plays.”