Mason, Oher absent as camp opens

WESTMINSTER -- As the Baltimore Ravens arrived in Westminster on Monday for the launch of training camp for today's opening practice, two prominent football players didn't show up to receive their room keys and playbooks at the team hotel.

Veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason is contemplating his future, his family situation and his contract as he ponders whether he'll follow through on his abrupt retirement announcement from two weeks ago.

And rookie first-round offensive tackle Michael Oher, a consensus All-American blocker from Ole Miss, is still haggling with team officials in contract negotiations.

Oher's absence didn't create any commotion even though he would be the first holdout f or the Ravens since defensive tackle Haloti Ngata's brief absence from camp three years ago.

Mason's unresolved status, particularly in the wake of wide receiver Drew Bennett's unanticipated retirement due to knee problems two days after signing with Baltimore, tends to dominate conversations.

Teammates are divided on whether Mason is resolute in walking away from the game or if he's conflicted, but leaning toward ultimately returning.

Mason might not know exactly what he's planning to do. Quarterback Joe Flacco spoke with his top wide receiver last week and came away uncertain about Mason's intentions.

"He didn't really sound too sure of himself," Flacco said as rookies, quarterbacks and selected veterans reported to camp. "I told him, 'Whatever decision you make, it's your decision.' I just let him know how much we want him and how much he means to the team. In no way, did I try to persuade him in anyway.

"I just wanted to make sure he understood how much we appreciate having him around. I don't really know. I think he'll probably talk to the coaches and whatever decision he makes, he makes."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he hasn't spoken with Mason since their face-to-face meeting last week.

"I'm sure it's pretty much the same, and we'll be seeing what happens in the next few days," Harbaugh said.

The Ravens did sign a wide receiver Monday, but it was a low-key move as they acquired free agent Biren Ealy.

Ealy is a 6-foot-3, 207-pound former University of Houston player who spent the majority of the past two seasons with the Tennessee Titans' practice squad. In four games played, Ealy has caught one pass for six yards.

Ealy arrives with some off-field baggage.

Ealy was cut by the New Orleans Saints this offseason along with a teammate after both players were arrested in Louisiana on charges of obscenity, disturbing the peace by being drunk in public and lewd conduct for allegedly urinating in public and exposing himself.

According to police reports, Ealy allegedly exposed himself and made lewd comments to a woman after she admonished the men for their behavior.

"We'll add another receiver because we need receivers now to fill out training camp," Harbaugh said shortly before Ealy was signed. "We're looking for the best guys out there that we can get, young guys, older guys, whoever that may be, to put 10 or 11 receivers into training camp. We've got some irons in the fire."

The Ravens have been contacted by four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Joe Horn, but haven't taken any action toward bringing him in for a tryout.

Other veterans who haven't been sought out by Baltimore, according to their agents, includes: Amani Toomer, Matt Jones, Justin McCareins, Koren Robinson and Robert Ferguson. The Ravens also haven't been in touch with D.J. Hackett since he tried out Friday along with Bennett, Chris Hannon and Justin Brown.

Bennett's retirement caught the Ravens off guard, but it didn't cost them any money because his $745,000 contract didn't include a signing bonus. Bennett's arthritic knee swelled up significantly after returning home in the wake of passing a physical and signing a contract.

"His knees just didn't calm down, and he felt like this is going to be a problem now, and forever really, because it's arthritic," Harbaugh said. "And it's time for him to move on. He didn't feel like he could get through a practice, let alone a season at this level."

When asked if he was shocked by the development, which followed Mason's retirement bombshell by two weeks, Harbaugh replied: "No, I don't get shocked. You would never characterize it that way. Things happen, and we're getting ready for practice."

Flacco didn't seem bothered by Bennett's retirement, either.

"I was kind of looking forward to meeting Drew and getting to know him a little bit," Flacco said. "It doesn't make that big of a deal now because he's not going to be here. My mom let me know last night that he had already retired so I was like, ‘OK.'"

Over the next few weeks while Mason mulls over his plans, the Ravens will be evaluating Mark Clayton, Demetrius Williams, Marcus Smith and Kelley Washington as well as Ealy and other players.

Mason caught 80 passes last season for 1,037 yards and five touchdowns. Between Clayton, Wi lliams, Smith and Washington, they registered a total of just 55 receptions and four touchdowns.

From Harbaugh's standpoint, it's counterproductive to dwell on Mason's absence. He made it clear by his strong words and tone that he doesn't intend to make it a major talking point with the players.

"Everything that happens to our football team, every bit of adversity we face, every bit of success we face, is an opportunity to get better," Harbaugh said. "I don't care what it is, who's here, who's not here, we don't care about any of it.

"It's irrelevant except to the extent that we can become a better football team today, and that's what our guys are going to be focused on. We're not talking about any specific players or anything like that. Everybody knows the situation. We've got a job to do today. Our guys can't wait to go to work, and that' s it. And that's what training camp is about."

Flacco is taking the stance that Mason's absence could wind up being a positive development because it could create opportunities for other players to establish themselves.

Still, it's extremely hard to replace a two-time Pro Bowl selection like Mason who has caught 790 career passes for 10,061 yards and 52 touchdowns in a dozen NFL seasons.

"We're going to try our best, as long as we do that, we'll be good," Flacco said. "The 3 1/2 weeks that we're here is plenty of time for somebody to stand out. That's what is going to happen. We're going to have to have a guy step up, a couple of guys step up.

"In a lot of ways, it's going to be good for us. Derrick not being here is going to force guys to make sure that they're 'The Guy' right away. The more guys we have feeling that they're, 'The Guy,' the better we're going to be."

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

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