Mason is the answer to Ravens' receiver riddle

OWINGS MILLS -- For years, the Baltimore Ravens watched their wide receivers stumble, drop countless passes and strike absolutely no fear in opposing secondaries.<br><br> For years, the Ravens tried without success to lure an impact downfield threat to cure a one-dimensional offense centered around bruising running back Jamal Lewis. Whether it was Terrell Owens, Randy Moss or David Boston, nothing panned out.

Finally, the Ravens believe they have their man after signing veteran wideout Derrick Mason, an athletic two-time Pro Bowl selection regarded as the top free agent at his position.

"Am I Randy? No. Am I Terrell? No. I'm Derrick, and the things I do out there on the field are very productive," Mason said Friday at the team's training complex a day after signing his five-year, $20 million contract that included $11 million in guaranteed money. "I think I can be put right along with those guys. Am I those guys? No.

"I'm just here to do the things I've been able to do the last six, seven years, make life hopefully a lot easier for the quarterback and everyone else on the offense."

The Ravens ranked 31st in passing last season while Mason led all NFL receivers with 96 receptions for the Tennessee Titans before being jettisoned as a salary-cap casualty. Baltimore was the only team to have no receiver catch at least 40 passes.

Mason, 31, might actually command a rarity for a Ravens receiver: double-team attention.

If that happens, then third-year quarterback Kyle Boller, tight end Todd Heap and Lewis' burdens have been reduced significantly.

"We expect to get the playmaking ability we've seen against us the last few years, not just the big plays, but the consistent big plays, not just the yards per catch, but the yards after the catch," receivers coach David Shaw said. "It's a lot of the little intangibles Derrick brings to the table: his personality, his persona, his energy. It will be a great addition to our offense. He brings legitimacy."

Without an elite target other than Heap, the Ravens averaged only 144.5 passing yards per contest last season. The Ravens ranked last in the NFL in passing offense in 2003 and 27th in 2002.

The closest approximation to Mason's productivity be Michael Jackson, who established a team record of 76 catches during the Ravens' inaugural season in 1996.

Over the last four seasons, Mason has caught 343 passes for 4,611 yards and 29 touchdowns.

Even from the distance of Nashville, the word was out on the Ravens' offense. In January of 2004, the Titans' 20-17 playoff win over Baltimore was largely built around stacking the line of scrimmage to contain Lewis.

"You stop Jamal and the likelihood of us winning was going to go up," Mason said. "They were one or two guys away from dominating on offense. We have that right now."

The X-factor is still Boller.

As the Ravens went 9-7 and missed the playoffs, Boller improved somewhat but didn't produce impressive numbers. Injuries to Lewis and Heap, shoddy pass protection and a lack of talent outside hindered his development.

"We hope we're working toward orchestrating the perfect storm, so to speak, in terms of everything coming together, including Kyle's maturity," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

A few high-profile receivers' agents voiced concerns that Boller was a reason to recommend against signing with the Ravens. Accustomed to playing with Titans veteran quarterback Steve McNair, Mason said that the Ravens didn't have to sell him on Boller's potential.

"Steve wasn't always Steve," Mason said. "We're looking for the same thing from Kyle, a progression. Once he's comfortable with what he's doing, I think he's going to be one of the best in the league and I just want to be a part of that."

Mason chose the Ravens over the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, actually turning down more money to sign with Baltimore.

"You can't go wrong with either organization, but it boiled down to my wife loved the color purple," Mason said.

The only major drawbacks on Mason are his age and size at 5-foot-10, 192 pounds, but he's been extremely durable and has made a living going across the middle and making acrobatic deep catches.

"I'm a very young 31," said Mason, who has only been a starter for the past five seasons after initially debuting as a return specialist.

When asked if Billick's bravado had reduced since he called him arrogant after the Titans' playoff win, Mason replied: "A lot less. Hey, man, that arrogance works for you. Now, I'm on the same side as coach, so it's going to be fun to see other teams get frustrated by some of the comments he might make or frustrated that Ray Lewis is knocking you around. .. This is an opportunity that I couldn't pass up."

As well as a being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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