Eisenberg: WR Competition Shifting From Jobs To Production


On most days, the No. 1 source of entertainment at training camp is the wide receiver competition, where a dozen candidates are leaping and diving to make plays and stand out. Only half will make the Ravens' 53-man roster.

Right now, the focus is on jobs, who will make it and who won't. Here's the skinny: Steve Smith Sr., the team's top receiver, obviously has nothing to worry about, and neither does Breshad Perriman, the team's first-round draft pick this year. Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown also are locks, and Michael Campanaro, Jeremy Butler and Darren Waller seemingly are the top candidates for the final spots.

In the long run, though, as summer practices give way to regular-season games starting next month, the focus will shift from jobs to production.

With Torrey Smith gone, the Ravens need a viable No. 2 receiver, someone who can line up opposite Smith Sr., pose a threat and pile up enough catches to make opposing defenses pay attention.

That's what the wide receiver battle REALLY is about, finding a guy who emerges as a major contributor.

As last year's No. 2, Torrey Smith caught 49 passes for 767 yards and 11 touchdowns. That's pretty typical for the second-most-productive receiver on an NFL team. I looked it up. Number-twos averaged 56 receptions in 2014, with 20 of the 32 catching more than 50 balls.

Smith's 2014 season was also pretty typical for the Ravens' No. 2 receiver. In recent years, their offense has faithfully featured at least two dangerous wideouts. Since 2010, their No. 2 has averaged 51.6 catches, 757.8 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns per season – substantial production.

Is one of the candidates currently vying for jobs and playing time at the Under Armour Performance Center capable of such numbers? It's an important question and certainly a fair one considering they're all relatively young guys with limited track records, Aiken being the oldest at 26.

I don't think there's much doubt the Ravens hope Perriman emerges as that guy. He's their first wide receiver first-round pick since 2005, and he's got the most speed of anyone in the group. Fairly or not, he's viewed by many analysts as a Torrey Smith 2.0, and Torrey was productive as a rookie in 2011, catching 50 passes for 841 yards and 7 touchdowns.

My guess is the Ravens would happily take a reprise of those numbers from Perriman in 2015. That's just what they're looking for.

Yes, it's slightly worrisome that Perriman is off to a slow start after suffering a knee bruise on the first day of camp. He hasn't been on the field since, but it's not considered a major injury, and remember, Smith struggled through his rookie camp and preseason in 2011 before taking off early in the regular season. There's plenty of time for Perriman to catch up.

But what if Perriman ends up taking longer than Smith to percolate until he boils? My best bet for the next man up is Aiken, who is making plays and exhibiting nice chemistry with quarterback Joe Flacco in camp.

True, he doesn't have Perriman's speed and bounced between four practices squads in three years before sticking with the Ravens in 2014, but Aiken is a fluid route runner with strong hands and seems to have found his footing as a pro. He caught 24 passes in a part-time opportunity last year, and watching him now, it's reasonable to think he could double that total with more snaps.

One way or another, the Ravens need someone who commands attention when he lines up opposite Smith.

A few teams have survived without that balance, even thrived despite mediocre production from their second receiver. The Seattle Seahawks got just 38 catches from their No. 2 (Jermaine Kearse) in 2014 but ended up in the Super Bowl. The Dallas Cowboys got 37 from their No. 2 (Cole Beasley) and made a playoff run.

Such teams tend to use running backs and tight ends to fill in for the missing wide receiver production, and the Ravens could indeed throw more to their backs and tight ends under Offensive Coordinator Marc Trestman. But they thrive on offensive balance, and getting production from both starting receivers has been a fundamental element of their blueprint.

I don't think that's changing. Flacco needs viable targets. The passing game needs to be threatening enough to keep defenses honest. As the wide receiver competition plays out at training camp, it's worth remembering what the Ravens ultimately want it to produce.

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