Ravens targeting receivers

OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens' elusive quest to land a star wide receiver has lasted for several years, a frustrating draft exercise that has rarely generated a consistent downfield target. Whether it was Travis Taylor, Patrick Johnson, Devard Darling or a multitude of other draft picks, the Ravens' search for a viable big-play threat has traditionally ended in disappointment.

Now, the Ravens have reached another crossroads at this critical position. One year after hitting a home run by landing strong-armed quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens are in the market for someone to run under his spirals.

As the Ravens contemplate a potential trade for Arizona Cardinals Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin, they have invested a ton of resources into evaluating the wide receiver draft class.

"I would challenge you to go to those receivers that we have working right now in the offseason program and tell them we need a receiver and see their reaction," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said during a draft luncheon when it was suggested to him that Baltimore is in dire need of a wide receiver. "I like the attitude of those guys. We're looking forward to some of those young guys taking some big leaps in their second year.

"So, is wide receiver a great need? Anybody that's special can come and make this football team better."

Holding the 26th overall pick of the first round, the Ravens are out of range for standouts like Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree and Missouri's Jeremy Maclin. So, they have paid particularly close attention to University of Maryland speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey, North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks, Rutgers' Kenny Britt and Florida's Percy Harvin by conducting private workouts for each prospect.

Each player has some outstanding qualities. However, all of them have some drawbacks in their respective games that could make them risky propositions at that spot. At least one of those players might emerge as a stronger value in the second round if they should slide to the Ravens at the 57th overall selection.

Heyward-Bey is extremely hard to gauge despite an outstanding size-speed ratio as the fastest player at the NFL scouting combine with a 4.30 time in the 40-yard dash. However, he tends to fight the ball in the air and doesn't display consistent hands, production and technique. Yet, it's hard to teach his rare athleticism.

"He's very big and fast, but he's a work in progress," Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said. "He's a player with tremendous upside, a home run threat. Every player in the league is looking for a big guy who can run fast."

Heyward-Bey has been projected everywhere from the Oakland Raiders' No. 7 overall pick to the New York Jets at No. 17 and the Ravens' first-round pick.

"The Ravens have to be looking for a wide receiver and he fits what they should be looking for, which is a vertical threat," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said during a conference call last week. "Joe Flacco has got a huge arm, so he fits. My only question after watching a lot of tape on the kid is just he makes a great catch on one play and then he double-catches it or drops it on an easy catch.

"If I'm expending a first-round pick on a wide receiver, one of the two most important qualifications to me at that position are great hands. And I don't think he has great hands, so I would struggle with it myself at 26. I think he's too big and strong and fast [to slide out of the first round] and somebody is going to draft him because of that. And I'm not saying he can't catch the football. I'm just saying he's inconsistent for me."

Meanwhile, Harvin's stock has taken a hit because of character and injury issues.

According to several published reports that haven't been challenged, Harvin allegedly tested positive for marijuana at the combine. That's a major red flag for NFL teams. Harvin, who has great acceleration and versatility, has also clashed with Florida coach Urban Meyer and teammates.

"If he slides, it's because of the off-the-field issues," Mayock said. "There's already stuff about him with coaches and teammates. The bigger question is, 'Has he tested positive at the combine and what's the story behind all that?' And I don't have that answer, so I can't tell you."

Harvin was under heavy scrutiny at the combine because of his background, which included trouble at the prep level in Virginia.

"Just things that haunted me from the past, a lot of those questions I answered and they kind of blew over," Harvin said during a February press conference. "It was a lot of stories out there they just wanted to hear from the horse's mouth."

Nicks, who caught 68 passes for 1,222 yards and a dozen touchdowns as a junior last season, worked out for the Ravens on Friday and has also taken an official visit to the team's training complex.

The Tar Heels' record setting wide receiver has a flair for the spectacular catch and the steady, move-the-chains variety, but lacks ideal stopwatch speed and gained 14 pounds after straining his hamstring at the combine. He has worked off most of the weight and is considered healthy now.

"I love Hakeem Nicks, but you've got to convince yourself off the field that he's okay," Mayock said. "He gained 14 pounds. That raised some red flags. Outside of off-the-field issues, he reminds me a little bit of a poor man's Anquan Boldin.

"He fights for every catch, he's got huge hands, really good hand-eye coordination. Not as fast as the 'elite' guys, but fast enough to get open. He creates separation with his quickness of his body, I think he goes anywhere from about 25 to 35 or in that range."

Britt is an imposing player at 6-3, 218 pounds with 4.40 speed, and he's the Big East Conference's all-time leading receiver.

According to Rutgers school officials, character concerns about Britt were blown out of proportion after he was suspended for one game for a violation of team rules.

"Britt's probably a late first, early second round guy," DeCosta said. "He's a big guy, real physical guy, tremendous catching radius, long arms, pretty fast, not a slow guy. I think his hands are good not great. He runs good routes, very talented guy with a lot of upside."

If the Ravens decide to pass on a wide receiver in the first round, second-round or third-round options that might be a good fit include: Ohio State's Brian Robiskie, Georgia wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, whom the Ravens interviewed at the combine, and Oklahoma's Joaquin Iglesias.

Penn State receivers Darius Butler and Derrick Williams, West Virginia quarterback Pat White, who visited Baltimore and may project to wide receiver, USC's Patrick Turner, tall Cal-Poly standout Ramses Barden and Florida's Louis Murphy, are a few other names to keep in mind later in the draft.

The Ravens could use some depth considering that Derrick Mason, Clayton and Demetrius Williams are all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents after this season.

Regardless of what the Ravens do, there's no guarantee of immediate success at a position where failure often occurs around the league.

Wide receivers usually experience an extremely tough adjustment as NFL rookies.

"In the NFL, that's the first thing they're going to challenge: whether or not you can get off the line of scrimmage," Mayock said. "The second reason is the sophistication of both the offensive and the defensive and they're going to ask wide receivers to make a lot of decisions on the run.

"So, there's a physical issue and then there's a mental issue and it's a very short line of wide receivers that can come out of college and handle both of those issues at a level where you can catch 50, 60 or more balls."

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