Clayton looks to rebound from rough year

WESTMINSTER -- As Mark Clayton scooted upfield after hauling in a touchdown pass from Joe Flacco during a minicamp, something else had returned to the Baltimore Ravens' wide receiver beyond his acceleration and moves. A wide smile creased Clayton's face as he clasped the football.

It was an expression that became a rarity last season during an especially trying time professionally and personally.

For Clayton, multiple injuries and substandard quarterbacking severely affected his production one year removed from a breakthrough season.

And the former first-round draft pick simultaneously dealt with heartache from the end of a brief marriage along with the joy and responsibility of becoming a single father of an infant son and sharing custody.

Times grew so tough that Clayton explored whether he could take a leave of absence in the middle of the season. Ultimately, the 25-year-old stuck it out and fulfilled everything demanded of him on and off the field.

"Without a doubt, it was the toughest thing I've gone through, but now I'm fine and it's over, it's done," Clayton said. "I learned a lot, without a doubt. With the circumstance, I was just pushing through it week in and week out. You could have easily wanted to give up.

"I wanted to take time off, but I needed to represent the Clayton family. I think you see your true self when you go through tough times, when you're in a bunch of mess and when things aren't going that well. That's when you see what you're truly made of."

Hurting emotionally, Clayton also endured a lot of physical pain in battling ankle, turf toe, Achilles' tendon and back ailments.

As the Ravens plummeted to 5-11, Clayton caught just 48 passes for 531 yards and no touchdowns.

This downward spiral hit Clayton just when everything seemed to be clicking for him. Emerging as a consistent downfield threat in 2006, he recorded career-highs with 67 receptions for 939 yards and five touchdowns.

Yet, Clayton became a hard-luck case last year.

"It was very frustrating as a player," Clayton said. "You want to win games and we didn't do what we were capable of.

"I had the injuries early, but after that I was fine. It was just a combination of everything going wrong. We were kind of off- rhythm all year."

First, Clayton rehabbed a high-ankle sprain. Then, a toe injury on his left foot limited him to third-down duty during the first two games.

He didn't catch his first pass, a screen for a loss of one yard, until the third game against the New York Jets.

"Our receivers coach last year, Mike Johnson, would always tell me, regardless of the circumstances, to play like you know how to whether you get the ball or not," Clayton said. "His advice really helped me a lot."

Now, Clayton is trying to regain his old form during the Ravens' rigorous offseason program overseen by new coach John Harbaugh.

His injury problems are behind him, and his compact 5-foot-10, 195-pound frame is honed for contact and speed.

"I'm 100 percent healthy," he said.

Prior to being drafted 22nd overall in 2005 out of Oklahoma, Clayton set the Sooners' all-time records for receptions (221), receiving yards (3,241 ), touchdown catches (31) and 100-yard receiving games. The two-time All-American averaged a touchdown every seven catches and was named All-Big 12 twice.

In the NFL, Clayton has caught 159 passes for 1,941 yards and seven touchdowns.

Nonetheless, the feeling around the team is that he's capable of achieving even more.

"Mark has to stay healthy, and he understands that," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We all know what Mark can do and how hard he works. I think he's got really big things ahead of him."

Whether it was Clayton dashing past defenders or hauling in a 50-yard bomb from Flacco, it looked like he has literally distanced himself from last season.

Now, Clayton is trying to absorb offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's extremely thick playbook and engineer a career resurgence.

"With Cam being here, there are so many opportunities," Clayton said. "It's a new system, and it's not easy. I'm sure with Cam the mindset is that we'll be able to get back to scoring touchdowns."

Along with the challenge of a learning curve, though, comes a prime opportunity and a fresh start.

After last season, that's all that Clayton wants.

"I'm eager to prove myself all over again," he said. "I pray for that every day. I can't wait for the season to start."

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

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