Ravens eyeing receiver class

OWINGS MILLS -- It's no longer a mere theory that drafting a wide receiver in the first round carries a significant risk given there are so many major adjustments for incoming rookies. It's emerging as a historical fact.

Out of 43 first-round wideouts picked over the past decade, just 17 have ever produced 1,000 receiving yards in one season in their careers with only two hitting that milestone as rookies. One of those two is New England Patriots star Randy Moss.

Traditionally, the percentage for success dips even further when the focus is narrowed to junior wide receivers, Baltimore Ravens director of college scouting Eric DeCosta has found.

"I think it's a tough position for guys to come in right away and play," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "Eric has done a study, and the study on junior receivers coming out didn't show very well."

The Ravens' due diligence has spurred them to investigate this receiver class thoroughly, bringing in Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly and Indiana's James Hardy for visits and holding a private workout with Michigan State blue-chipper Devin Thomas. All three are juniors, each possessing the size quotient coveted by new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

"There are some guys that are very intriguing from a size perspective," DeCosta said.

The Ravens currently lack a big red-zone target outside, and defenses tend to overload their coverage on tight end Todd Heap near the end zone.

Thomas is the lone receiver expected to go within the first 15 picks.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior college transfer caught 79 passes for 1,260 yards and eight touchdowns with 1,135 kick return yards last season. He displayed 4.4 speed at the NFL scouting combine.

"Tremendous tools, very fast, explosive and built like a running back," DeCosta said of Thomas. "Not a lot of career production, so that would be the warning on him. On the flip side, at his size, with that type of speed, strength and physicality, I would expect he'll be an outstanding receiver and also a possible kick-return guy."

Kelly's stock has dipped due to injuries and a slow time of 4.65 to 4.69 seconds. He compounded that issue by throwing his shoes, arguing with the Sooners' strength coach and issuing complaints about the surface he ran on and a respected coaching staff.

Nonetheless, the 6-4, 224-pounder still carries a fairly high grade and might be of interest to the Ravens in the second round provided they land Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan in the first round.

"Malcolm Kelly is a very big possession guy with a great frame, ability to extend in traffic and pluck the football," DeCosta said. "He plays physical. He didn't run a fast time, but he plays a lot faster. I expect him to be an outstanding pro."

Hardy was recruited to play basketball by the Hoosiers and caught 79 passes for 1,125 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. However, he was arrested in 2006 on domestic battery charges, an issue that has caused teams to investigate his background. The charge was later dismissed after he completed a pretrial diversion program.

Hardy's 4.4 speed, imposing size and contrite approach to interviews may ease some concerns.

"He reminds a lot of people of Plaxico Burress with his ability to make plays down the field," DeCosta said. "He has game-breaking ability and is an excellent red-zone guy. He'll develop into quite a weapon for somebody."

Houston's Donnie Avery, whom Baltimore interviewed at the combine, is on the rise. He ran a 4.34 at his campus workout, catching 91 passes for 1,456 yards and seven touchdowns last season.

"Avery is a very fast guy, very shifty, vertical type," DeCosta said. "He makes a lot of big things happen and is a great special-teams guy."

Kansas State's Jordy Nelson has been lauded for his intangibles and production. The 6-2, 217-pounder caught 122 passes for 1,606 yards, toasting projected first-round cornerback Aqib Talib for one of his 11 touchdowns. He has respectable 4.51 speed.

"He's very physical, a tough guy who's smart and can go inside or outside," DeCosta said. "He's faster than you think. He had a great game against Talib last year. He catches everything near him. He's a solid prospect."

The caveat on receivers, though, is buyer beware.

After breaking through with 67 catches for 939 yards and five touchdowns in his second season after leading all rookies with 44 catches as a 2005 first-round pick, Mark Clayton slumped to 48 catches, 531 yards and no scores last year as he dealt with nagging injuries.

"I think this year the reason why there's a clump on our board is because they're juniors and we just don't have as much information as you would like to have," Newsome said. "Then again, every year there are probably more receivers on our board than any other position because production counts so much for a receiver where it doesn't in a lot of other positions."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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