Heading into the first practice of training camp, BaltimoreRavens.com will offer previews of those positions that feature a tough competition, focusing on who will be fighting for playing time. Today, the wide receivers take the spotlight.
It's never a fun experience for an NFL player when a valued teammate retires, just like Ravens receiver Derrick Mason surprisingly did last week.
But even though many of Baltimore's young wideouts are saddened by the possibility of the 12-year veteran hanging up his cleats – Mason cited a nagging shoulder injury and the desire to spend more time with his family in the wake of Steve McNair's murder – there are some sly smiles in the locker room.
Mason's retirement isn't final until he files official papers with the league office. If he does, there will be a considerable amount of competition for the No. 2 receiver spot behind Mark Clayton.
The effect of the announcement was immediately felt, as all of the prospects have been working double time in their bid to rise up the depth chart.
"I'm even hungrier now," Marcus Smith said this week. "I always prepared like I was fighting for a starting spot, but now, it's right in front of my face. All the guys are in here working hard."
Smith wasn't the only one.
Under barely-lit spotlights, the darkened practice facility seemed like a stadium at dusk, with only faint rays from the sun entering through high-placed windows.
It would be less-than-ideal conditions for most people, but not Smith.
"It's just like playing a night game," Smith said with a smile. "You've got to locate the football."
Smith figures to get a ton of reps over the next month, considering that the current favorite to back up Clayton, Demetrius Williams, has been limited with an Achilles' tendon injury. Smith was one of the breakout Ravens during offseason minicamps, and he wants to continue that momentum when he reports to training camp on Monday – two days before veterans are required to arrive.
"If I'm going to get those reps with the first team, I've got to be in my best shape now, not later in camp," Smith continued. "I'm definitely going to report early. I can't wait to get started."
Still, the second-year receiver is going to have a few other players nipping at his heels.
Here is a look at who will be battling for a spot in training camp:
2008:Clayton saw action in all 16 games, starting 13 of them. He finished second on the team with 41 receptions for 695 yards and three touchdowns. Clayton also carried the ball six times for 81 yards, including a career-long 42-yard touchdown run. And, who could forget Clayton's 32-yard touchdown pass to Mason in Week 13?
Forecast:With or without Mason, Clayton was inked as a starter. He has looked solid in Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and should blossom after an entire year playing with Flacco.
2008:Until an ankle injury landed Williams on Injured Reserve after seven games, the fourth-year player notched a season-high 70-yard touchdown catch-and-run, part of his 180 receiving yards on the season.
Forecast:Williams showed a slight hitch in his step when he came out of his routes during minicamps, but he looked fluid when running full throttle. Perhaps a month of rest before training camp means that he will be 100 percent soon. He showed promise as a rookie, but must show that he can stay healthy if he wants to be a part of the offense.
2008:Smith was primarily a special teams player towards the end of last year, when he took the field for five contests. He saw sparing action as a third wideout in the season finale, but tallied no receptions.
Forecast:Of all the Ravens, Smith may have made the biggest improvement from year-to-year, as he ran crisp routes and caught the ball well in traffic. The Ravens like his toughness, as well. He could be a contributor in his second season.
2008:Playing for the New England Patriots, Washington only hauled in one ball for 3 yards. He was an asset on special teams, however, which got him on the field for 10 games.
Forecast:Washington provides a veteran presence in the locker room, and after out-hustling the two other free agents that the Ravens tried out in May (Tab Perry and Jerry Porter), Baltimore will likely keep him around, barring injury.
2008:The former seventh-round draft pick was on IR all year with a knee injury.
Forecast:At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Harper has the size the Ravens covet. He worked hard on his rehab and was solid in practices this offseason. Harper is definitely hungry for a spot on the active roster, but the Ravens could try to sneak him by waivers and place him on the practice squad. He will undoubtedly get a chance to shine in the preseason, so it is up to him.
2008:Wheelwright (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) was signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Minnesota. He spent the year on the practice squad.
Forecast:Considering the Ravens cut Ed Williams on Wednesday, Wheelwright could again find himself on the practice squad. His size is a bonus, but he still needs to develop.
2008:The rookie free agent from Duke boasted a career-high 61 catches for 693 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior in 2008, earning the team's Most Outstanding Receiver award.
Forecast:Riley had some flashes in OTAs, but he also has a long way to go until he can do it every time. If the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder improves in training camp, there could be a practice squad place for him.
2008:Williams is a size clone of Riley. The Maryland product played in all 13 games for the Terrapins last year, totaling 10 catches for 124 yards and one touchdown.
Forecast:Just like Riley, Williams has an uphill battle. The practice squad would mean a blue-ribbon training camp performance.