While many eyes were focused on the Alabama/LSU matchup this past weekend, New England scouts were…
Ravens banking on Smith, Doss for a spark
A story earlier this week about how former Buffalo second-round wide receiver James Hardy (2008) hopes to revive his career with the Ravens - he was released by the Bills last year after two injury-plagued campaigns, didn't play at all in 2010 and was signed by Baltimore in January - served as a reminder of the club's unfortunate track record at the wideout position. While general manager Ozzie Newsome remains arguably the best talent scout in the NFL, he has endured an unlucky and unproductive stretch when it comes to choosing wide receiver prospects.
It might be one of the few blemishes on Newsome's brilliant draft resume.
The Ravens hope the poor luck ends with this year's selections of wideouts Torrey Smith of Maryland (second round) and Indiana's Tandon Doss (fourth). The two, especially Smith, figure to provide a vertical dimension to a Baltimore passing game that has lacked a deep threat the past several seasons.
"I think I fit in well with what they tell me they need," said Smith, who had four touchdowns of 60 yards or more among his dozen scoring receptions at Maryland in 2010, and who has been timed at a blistering 4.37 in the 40. "I know there's a lot to learn ... but I also know that you can't learn to run fast."
And the Ravens, even Newsome conceded, need someone to run fast if they are to compete with archrival Pittsburgh in the division. Newsome before the draft even concluded confirmed Smith, whom he declared "a three-point shooter" because of the deep-ball threat he represents, will challenge for a starting spot. Some scouts had reservations about Smith's inconsistent hands, others about his uneven route-running skills, but no one questioned his play-making potential.
There's no doubt the Ravens could use an explosive component in a passing attack that seems to feature the intermediate game, both by design and necessity.
Smith can also be effective in the red zone, as evidenced by seven touchdowns of 20 or fewer yards in 2010, but running deep, particularly on the post pattern, is clearly his forte.
Baltimore posted just seven receptions of 40 yards or more in 2010, and only three playoff teams had fewer, with the NFL-wide average sitting at 8.3. Said Newsome of Smith: "He can peel the top off a defense, and we really need that."
His critics aside, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is regarded by Baltimore coaches and officials as a very good deep thrower. It will help if he has someone to whom to throw deep, and it will mean a lot if that player is a home-grown talent who can progress right along with Flacco, who has started every game the past three seasons.
It's notable that, of the seven veteran wide receivers on the current Ravens roster, only three are home-grown. And that's for a franchise that prides itself, and very justifiably so, on drafting and developing talent. Even more notable is that the three - Marcus Smith, David Reed and Justin Harper - have a total of zero career catches in regular-season outings.
Not since former dubious first-round choice Travis Taylor notched 39 catches in 2003 has a home-grown Baltimore player led the team's wideouts in receptions. For the past seven seasons, the Ravens' top wide receiver in terms of catches has been a veteran acquired in free agency or a trade. Last year alone, the Ravens traded for one veteran wide receiver (Anquan Boldin) and signed two more (Donte Stallworth and T.J. Houshmandzadeh) as free agents. Since he arrived as a free agent in 2005, Derrick Mason has led Baltimore wide receivers in catches five of six years. His streak was finally snapped by Boldin in 2010.
Sooner or later, the Ravens, who have produced 12 Pro Bowl performers in the past 13 drafts, have to add a home-grown wide receiver to the estimable bounty.
"I think they got the right guys," Doss told The Sports Xchange after the draft.
If so, it will be about time. In the 15 drafts between 1996-2010, Baltimore selected 17 wide receivers. Arguably the best of them was Brandon Stokley, a fourth-round pick in 1999 who scored the Ravens' first touchdown in their Super Bowl XXXV victory a year later, but whose best seasons have been elsewhere. Jermaine Lewis (fifth round, 1996) was a terrific punt returner who averaged 11.8 yards in his Baltimore tenure, but started only 13 games at wideout in four years. Mark Clayton (first round, 2005) averaged 46.8 receptions, but was traded to St. Louis last season.
Mostly, the team's draft haul has consisted of guys like Taylor, and washouts such as James Roe, Patrick Johnson, Ron Johnson and Devard Darling. Only four of the 17 Newsome choices befre Smith and Doss ever recorded more than 25 catches in a season. Newsome has such a sterling draft record otherwise, one would think he is certainly due to land a quality wide receiver in the draft at some point.
Maybe Smith and Doss represent that such a point will come in 2011.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.
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