The battle at wide receiver will take center stage when training camp opens at the Under Armour Performance Center next week.
The Ravens have a young nucleus of receiving talent, which is headlined by receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. All of the receivers in the competition bring something different to the table, and* *here's a look at the areas where some of them excel:
There is no shortage of talent in this area. The Ravens have plenty of players with top-flight speed who can keep defenses from getting too close to the line of the scrimmage. Smith and Jacoby Jones both have great top-end speed, which they showed off throughout last season. With Smith and Jones on the outside, that can spread out defenses and open opportunities for tight ends over the middle of the field and Ray Rice out of the backfield. Smith and Jones give the Ravens a dynamic vertical passing game to match Joe Flacco's big-time arm.
Another receiver known for his speed is Deonte Thompson, who earned his way onto the roster with a strong training camp last year. He was a track star at the University of Florida, and he might be the fastest player on the Ravens' roster. Thompson is looking to emerge this season, and his speed could prove critical to getting on the field. Fellow second-year wideout Tommy Streeter also has great straight-ahead speed and fourth-year receiver David Reed is known as a burner.
The Ravens lost their best route runner in Anquan Boldin, who had the ability to get open and find soft spots in the defense even without standout speed. Boldin's route running was a point of study for many of the young receivers, specifically Torrey Smith. He regularly talked about learning from the way Boldin attacked defenses and Smith has come a long way in his routes the last two years. He's not just a burner like when he arrived as a rookie, and he's developed his understanding and execution of the route tree. Smith has added the intermediate routes to his game, and he's able to beat defenders on out-routes and comebacks.
Tight end Dennis Pitta is also a good route runner, especially in his ability to get open over the middle of the field. He can exploit linebackers in coverage and has a knack for finding the first down sticks. Pitta always seems to be in tune with Flacco, which helps whenever Flacco is under pressure.
The title for best hands on the team is a widely-debated amongst the receiving corps. Pitta likely holds the honor now. He hardly drops passes thrown his way, and is constantly making tough catches in traffic over the middle of the field.
Third-year wideout Tandon Doss is also in this equation. He's known for his hands, although his opportunities have been limited over the last two seasons. Doss can make tough catches, including some impressive one-handed snags on the practice field.
Sometimes quarterbacks just give their receivers a chance to make big plays. In those situations, it's simply a matter of who can win one-on-one battles. Pitta might be the best receiving threat in this regard, as his height and athleticism gives Flacco a big area to target. Pitta, a former basketball player, can go up and get high passes over shorter defenders, especially in the red zone.
Smith has come a long way in this regard, which he showed in key situations last year in the AFC divisional round against the Broncos and in the Week 3 victory over the Patriots. Smith can beat some of the best defenders in the game, including Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey.
One of the most underrated aspects of a receiver's game is blocking ability. Those skills mostly go unnoticed until a play like "Hey Diddle, Diddle," where* *Boldin's crushing block on safety Eric Weddle freed up Rice to pick up the final few yards.
One of the top blockers is tight end Ed Dickson. While his production declined in the running game last year, he still started 11 games and had a key role in clearing the way for Rice. Dickson wants to take on a larger role in the passing game this year, but his contributions in the blocking department are still critical.
In a crowded race like this, the final couple of roster spots will likely go to the receivers who can help the team in different areas. That makes special teams contributions critical, especially for players like Thompson, Streeter, Reed, LaQuan Williams and Aaron Mellette.
Players known for their return abilities are Thompson and Reed. They are both quality return men who have experience as the starting kick returners. If the Ravens take Jones off kick returns this season, then Reed or Thompson are likely candidates to take over that job.
Reed is also a key player in special teams coverage, as he's one of the team's top gunners on punt returns. Williams is also used heavily on special teams coverage, which has been his way onto the roster the last couple of years. Depending how the Ravens end up splitting the reps on offense, Doss could get* *some additional work as a punt returner this year.