Ravens looking to upgrade at wide receiver

OWINGS MILLS -- As the Baltimore Ravens were being expelled from the playoffs by the Indianapolis Colts, their glaring need at wide receiver was exposed again. During the Ravens' pair of playoff games, the wide receivers only managed a total of eight receptions with five of those catches generated by reliable veteran Derrick Mason.

It was a microcosm of the lack of production from a pivotal position throughout the season.

A big-play, impact downfield threat never emerged to work in tandem with strong-armed quarterback Joe Flacco.

Although Mason is no longer under contract and contemplating retirement, the Ravens are hoping to retain him and upgrade the position through free agency and the draft.

"Do we want to improve at the wide receiver position? Yes, because I think that will further enhance our running game," general manager Ozzie Newsome said during the Ravens' state of the team address Wednesday afternoon. "I think having a playmaker on the outside will help Joe Flacco become a better quarterback. We can score some points, but we want to be better.

"We've got to be better. If we ever get involved in a shootout, I want to win that shootout. We don't want to have the Pro Bowl game. If we ever get involved in that, I want to be able to win a game like that."

With the likely scenario of an uncapped year about to unfold when the free agent and trading period begins March 5, the Ravens are faced with trying to hold onto some of their current wide receivers while also bolstering the position with new players.

The top wide receivers are restricted free agents like the Denver Broncos' Brandon Marshall, the San Diego Chargers' Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd and the Dallas Cowboys' Miles Austin.

The best unrestricted free agent wideouts expected to be available are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Antonio Bryant, the Buffalo Bills' Terrell Owens, the Carolina Panthers' Muhsin Muhammad and the Houston Texans' Kevin Walter.

Acquiring high-profile restricted free agents like Marshall, though, is a costly proposition in terms of giving up draft picks as well as an exorbitant contract. He's expected to receive the high tender of first-round and third-round picks.

Marshall also carries some baggage with several off-field problems in his past, including domestic violence episodes.

The Ravens acknowledged, especially owner Steve Bisciotti, that they're open to taking a risk on a player with some problems.

Jackson, Floyd and Austin are expected to carry similarly high compensation levels.

Unlike the Ravens' current crop of receivers, many of those players, especially Marshall (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and Jackson (6-5, 225 pounds) are imposing targets.

"I do think we need bigger receivers," Bisciotti said.

Unless a new collective bargaining agreement is hammered out, which is regarded as extremely unlikely, the Ravens will face limitations as a Final Eight playoff team. They can only sign one unrestricted free agent when they lose a free agent with the exception of signing one player for a $5.5 million minimum first-year contract.

While Newsome didn't rule out the possibility of trading a first-round draft pick for an elite wide receiver, he's traditionally averse to parting ways with his draft picks.

"I leave myself open to anything," he said. "If we can improve our football team, then we will do it, but we have a process in place. If there's an opportunity for us to do it in that manner, yes, we will. I want to win."

While Mason caught 73 passes for 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns, former first-round draft pick Mark Clayton caught only 34 passes for 480 yards and two touchdowns.

And journeyman Kelley Washington had a solid season as the third receiver with 34 catches for 431 yards and two scores. Washington is an unrestricted free agent that the Ravens have informed they want to re-sign. He has said he's inclined to look around as a free agent, but is open to returning.

Clayton and Demetrius Williams, who was leapfrogged by Washington on the depth chart as he caught only eight passes for 142 yards and one score, are both restricted free agents. Williams, who extended just one hand while failing to secure a fourth-down try against the Colts in a 20-3 AFC divisional playoff loss, didn't receive high marks from coach John Harbaugh.

"Demetrius would say this, too: He is not able yet to do enough," Harbaugh said. "You've got to be able to run the kind of routes, catch the ball in pressure situations, break the thing off at the right depth, make the right adjustments in pressure situations and do the kind of things that are going to help us move the football and win games.

"And those other three guys did that better, offseason training camp and throughout the year. We tried to put Demetrius in situations to be successful as much as we could, and we need more. He wants to do more. And you need to be a better player to give us what we were looking for."

Besides the wide receiver position, the Ravens are looking for increased proficiency from Flacco.

Flacco completed 63.1 percent of his throws for 3,613 yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for an 88.9 passer rating.

However, hip, quadriceps and ankle injuries hampered Flacco. And he threw five of his interceptions during the final seven games, throwing just 10 passes in a playoff victory over the New England Patriots.

When asked what's necessary for the Ravens to ascend into a Super Bowl team, Bisciotti didn't hesitate to assign a lot of that responsibility to Flacco.

"I think a lot of it is focused on Joe," Bisciotti said. "I don't think there's any doubt that he's the key to any kind of growth in the system. To some degree, he was maligned a little bit for not making a bigger step. I think that what he did in his first year kind of set some unrealistic expectations.

"Joe just looks like the kind of guy that's ready to do what he has to do to get better. If we pushed him out of his box a little bit this year and that might have been the perception, then maybe some shortcomings showed up that didn't show up in his first year because we were not asking that much of him. This next year, it's time for him to do the things we know he's capable of doing."

The Ravens also want to get better at rushing the passer.

Last season, they registered just 32 sacks as outside linebacker Terrell Suggs posted a career-low 4 1/2 sacks.

"No question about it, we want more sacks," Harbaugh said. "We want more quarterbacks tagged right in the chest. We want to knock those guys down as much as we can. I think you see it in the last weekend of footbal. That's what wins football games on defense and takes pressure off of the secondary."

Signed to a $62.5 million contract prior to last season, Suggs reported out of shape to training camp before injuring his heel.

Then, he sprained his knee on an illegal block by Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn.

"I think he came in out of shape, and we now have him for the offseason," Bisciotti said. "He's still a dominant player. I think that we've got him in the directioj nthat we want to get him back to, and he's still very young."

As the Ravens' franchise player for the past two offseasons, Suggs wasn't required to participate in the offseason conditining program. He has committed to take part in workouts this year.

"I think that it's really important that he be here," Harbaugh said. "We've had that conversation. It's my understanding that he feels like it's really important to be here. To get in the kind of world-class shape that he wants to get into, that we need him to get into, we think here is the place for him."

Meanwhile, the Ravens are optimistic that free safety Ed Reed and Mason will not retire.

Reed has said he's "50-50" on whether he'll return due to lingering injuries, including a nerve impingement that affects his neck and shoulder.

"I believe Ed's going to play next year," Harbaugh said. "If he doesn't, we'll have to have a plan in place to move on. There's no better leader, no better football player, no better guy on our team than Ed Reed. We need him back. He's a huge part of our puzzle.

"I would say the same thing about Derrick. That depends on contract things and where he's at as far as his career, but we're going to try to do everything we can to get Derrick back. You want as many good players as you can possibly get, and those are two really good players. I'm kind of somewhat counting on them right now as we go forward."


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