Ravens' Clayton catching on fast

OWINGS MILLS - When the Baltimore Ravens resume practice Tuesday to begin preparations for the Indianapolis Colts, it's highly unlikely that rookie wide receiver Mark Clayton will join the starters' huddle. However, Clayton's stock has been rising of late. And his development coincides with starter Clarence Moore faltering at key junctures this preseason with a handful of dropped passes that could have produced touchdowns or first downs.

Although Clayton lost ground during a five-day holdout that ended when he signed a five-year, $8.2 million contract, the first-round draft pick from Oklahoma has rapidly made up for that absence.

Clayton finished the preseason with eight receptions for 70 yards, including three catches for 38 yards in the Ravens' 26-20 overtime win over the Washington Redskins last week. In particular, his ability to run after the catch increases his value on a team that ranked last in the NFL in yards after the catch last season.

"You can see that Mark is doing well," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "The time he missed hurts. It is what it is. He will be a part of what we do.

"I imagine he will be able to impact the game. You see what he can do when he gets the ball in his hands. We've got to find as many ways as we can in the right atmosphere to get the ball in his hands."

During a 16-yard reception against the Redskins, Clayton demonstrated his athleticism. He caught the football in stride, redirected his momentum with a sharp cut past the secondary and dashed upfield for eight extra yards and a first down.

After missing the first 10 practices and a scrimmage, Clayton appears to have assimilated the playbook quickly and overcame any nerves about his initiation into the NFL.

"After coming in with high expectations for myself, I learned a lot and I feel like I did improve quickly," Clayton said. "I'm looking forward to the season. I don't care about starting. I just want to play as much as possible and I just want to win.

"I feel like I'm getting into the flow of the offense and I'm feeling it now. I'm getting off the ball, flying downfield, getting into my blocks and catching the ball."

Meanwhile, Moore dropped a pair of passes against the Redskins. That was the same way he opened the preseason with a few drops against the Atlanta Falcons.

At 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, Moore is an imposing wideout who thrives in the red zone on jump balls. The drops, though, has been somewhat of a surprise after looking sure-handed during minicamps and training camp.

"I know he's disappointed, too," Billick said of Moore, who caught three passes for 71 yards in four August starts. "It's not something we had seen for a while. No one's more disappointed than he is and we expect him not to do that in the regular season. We have very high expectations for Clarence."

The Ravens plan to have Moore start opposite two-time Pro Bowl selection Derrick Mason and take advantage of Moore's size advantage. Clayton is slated to begin the season as the third receiver, working out of the slot and might return a few punts.

It's a competitive situation, and Clayton wasn't drafted to sit on the bench. He was acquired specifically to help upgrade the 31st-ranked passing game in the league last season.

"Within the organization, there's competition and that's a good thing," Clayton said. "You have to be at your best everyday if you want to play. It makes the whole group better and it definitely pushes me to be at my best."

Clayton is the Sooners' all-time leading receiver with 221 receptions, 3,241 yards and 31 touchdowns.

"Mark has shown me he's more than worthy of being a first-round pick," offensive coordinator Jim Fassel said. "He's a player. He has a great attitude. He makes big plays.

"It's just great to have him on the team. Our front office did a great job by getting him because he's one of the top rookie receivers."

NOTE: Nickel back Deion Sanders, who challenged professional athletes to donate at least $1,000 last week to victims of Hurricane Katrina, visited the displaced Tulane football team in Dallas over the weekend. "I just really wanted to motivate them to hang on, because they're going to come through this," Sanders told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "It's truly touching because they're somebody I can identify with. I can identify with football players, I can identify with trials and tribulations. And I can identify with dilemmas. Sometimes, you don't see an end there, but you definitely can see your way through it."

 The NFL has yet to make an announcement on whether cornerback Samari Rolle will be suspended for the Colts game after he accepted a plea bargain earlier this offseason for a domestic violence charge involving his wife. . Tight end Trent Smith, who was released this weekend by Baltimore, was claimed off waivers by the San Francisco 49ers. ... Chester Taylor led all NFL running backs this preseason with 270 yards on 39 carries. . Randy Hymes led the Ravens with 13 catches for 218 yards and two touchdowns. . The Ravens generated a dozen sacks, allowing eight.

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

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