Big Shoes to Fill with Mason's Retirement

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As the Ravens, fans and media outlets attempt to sort out the sudden retirement announcement of veteran receiver Derrick Mason, the next question is "What's next?"

How does an offense that seemed poised to take a big step forward on the arm of maturing quarterback Joe Flacco recover from losing their most productive wideout for the past four years?

There are several options moving forward: build from within, offer a trade, or approach a free agent. Not to mention, Mason could still reconsider his retirement.

As it currently stands following Mason's comments that his impending retirement is a 99 percent certainty, Baltimore's top two receivers would be Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams, neither of whom have made the leap from promising young prospect to star pass-catcher.

Clayton caught 67 passes for 939 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore in 2006, but hasn't come close since, while a nagging ankle injury has limited Williams from cashing in on a rookie campaign where he led the Ravens with an 18.0-yard average per catch.

Meanwhile, the untested Marcus Smith and Justin Harper, along with longtime special teamer Kelley Washington, would battle for slotting behind Clayton and Williams.

Mason, who paced Baltimore with 80 receptions for 1,037 yards and five scores last year, believes the Ravens can soldier on with those players already in house.

"I have left them in good hands," Mason told the Web site JockLife.com. "Mark Clayton is a younger version of me. Williams can be a true player; he can be in the elite class. Smith, Harper, Washington, they all are a young group that can only be better with Joe on the field."

However, Flacco built an obvious bond with Mason as a rookie. No. 85 was regularly the target in critical situations, especially on third down, where Mason was fifth in the NFL with 26 grabs for 355 yards and two touchdowns.

Some of the burden will be eased by tight ends Todd Heap and L.J. Smith, who figure to be more involved in the passing game as Flacco gains more confidence in the pocket and the young offensive line improves.

Even though Heap was primarily used as a blocker last season, the tight end position is traditionally featured prominently in coordinator Cam Cameron's offense. Both Heap and Smith, a free-agent signee from the Philadelphia Eagles, are known for their receiving abilities.

In addition, speculation will most likely arise yet again of the Ravens re-opening conversations with the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals regarding a trade for Brandon Marshall or Anquan Boldin, respectively.

Marshall was all but ruled out due to ongoing legal issues, and the Cardinals were reportedly asking for first- and third-round draft picks for Boldin, who would then want a new contract – an extremely steep price to pay.

Barring an improbable trade, Mason's retirement would grant the team $3 million in salary cap room, which the Ravens could then use on a free agent, such as veterans Marvin Harrison, Matt Jones or D.J. Hackett.

Mason, 35, had been vocal about wanting a contract extension as he enters the final year of his initial Ravens deal, but his agent, C. Lamont Smith, told JockLife.com that the "decision had little if anything to do with Baltimore's refusal to grant him and extension," something Mason also admitted.

Both Mason and Smith cited the recent death of Steve McNair and a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery as the main factors in the announcement.

According to a statement from Smith, Mason has not sent in his retirement papers to the NFL league office yet, which does leave the door slightly open for a return.

"After speaking with Derrick, I telephoned Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' general manager, and advised him of Derrick's decision," Smith said. "He asked me to delay the announcement of this decision out of respect for his former teammate Steve McNair.

"Given that Derrick just reached this decision on Friday, he has not as of yet filed official papers with the league offices. We expect that he will do this when he gets around to it."

As adamant as Mason and Smith are about the veracity of the receiver's retirement, whether or not Mason is donning purple and black next year remains to be seen.

And the Ravens have several paths from which to choose.  

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