When the Ravens opened up an Organized Team Activity practice to the media last week, it wasn't difficult to pick out the top wide receiver.
You didn't need an expert's eyes to recognize that Steve Smith Sr. was getting open and catching passes all over the field.
Joe Flacco repeatedly targeted the veteran wideout during 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 drills – over the middle, along the sidelines, deep – and Smith piled up a bevy of receptions.
It was a reprise of the frisky practice performances Smith consistently gave a year ago at the Under Armour Performance Center after he joined the Ravens as a 35-year-old free agent. The team hoped those strong practices would translate into a strong performance once the season began, and they did: Smith led the team with 79 catches for 1,045 yards.
A year later, the Ravens are hoping for more of the same from Smith in 2015. In fact, they aren't just hoping – they're counting on it.
Other than Smith, they're going with young wide receivers who don't have nearly the same kind of track record. The Ravens really like Marlon Brown, Kamar Aiken, Michael Campanaro and rookie Breshad Perriman, but between them, they've totaled 104 receptions for 1,148 yards in the NFL. That's 103 more yards than Smith recorded last season.
Of course, Aiken is the oldest of that group by a couple of years and he just turned 26, so the supporting cast has plenty of upside. Perriman, 21, is a 2015 first-round draft pick from whom much is expected.
But while the young guys percolate, the Ravens really need production from their, ahem, elder statesman, Smith, who just turned 36.
In one sense, that's a bit of a dice roll. As ESPN's Jamison Hensley pointed out Monday, the last 36-year-old NFL receiver to surpass 1,000 yards in a season was Joey Galloway in 2007. It's only happened five times in league history. There does seem to be a ceiling of sorts for receivers his age.
But if anyone is going to become the next guy to do it, it's probably Smith. Last season, he made more receptions for Baltimore at age 35 than he did for Carolina at age 30 in 2009. He caught 41 passes in the first half of the season and 38 in the second half, so he didn't wear down. His eight playoff catches included one for a touchdown against Darrelle Revis.
Now the issue becomes how to get the same production from him in 2015. It's crucial to the Ravens' prospects, given the relative inexperience of their other receivers. I've said before that I believe cornerback Jimmy Smith is the most valuable player on the team other than Flacco (see: 2014 season), but Steve Smith is up there.
To get the most out of him in the fall, the Ravens could easily tell him just to chill out this time of year, find a beach somewhere and save his legs. Does he really need to run around and dominate these voluntary OTAs? But Smith would never entertain the notion. Part of what makes him so good is his fire for the game, which still burns hot. His excellent OTA attendance is just one of several manifestations of that.
"I'm just going to play football and practice. I think I look halfway decent," he said last week. "I think there are teams that probably (are) drafting wide receivers hoping that they can get a guy fresh out of a college able to put up 1,000 yards (like) I did at 35. They're hoping a 20-something-year-old kid can. I think age is a number … right now, I feel good, and I'm playing well, so I think 36 is good."
A likelier scenario for getting the most out of him could involve rationing his snaps once the regular season begins, much like the Ravens did with veteran linebacker Elvis Dumervil in 2014. Dumervil, 31, just played around half of the team's defensive snaps but stayed so fresh he ended up setting the franchise's single-season sack record. Smith obviously needs to play more than that, a lot more, to catch a thousand yards worth of passes, but careful monitoring of his load could help preserve him.
Devising such a plan could be on Offensive Coordinator Marc Trestman's to-do list, but one way or another, the Ravens need to find a way to get as much as possible from Smith.