For the Ravens' wide receivers, hanging on to the football last year was tough.
This season, hanging on to a job might be tougher.
Despite flourishing in an offense that produced 238.7 passing yards per game last year -- the most since the 1996 debut team posted 248.6 per contest -- the Ravens dropped 5.4 percent of passes thrown to them, the fourth-highest mark in the league, according to SportsCharts.com. Pro Football Focus indicates the team lost out on a league-high 472 yards because of those drops.
This year, even with the free-agent departure of wide receiver Torrey Smith to the San Francisco 49ers, those who line up on the outside (and, at times, in the slot) might not get much of a chance to improve those figures.
While the receivers will still be counted upon to move the chains and get downfield in new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman's offense, tight ends and running backs will also be utilized heavily in the Ravens' efforts to be multi-faceted for themselves and deceptive to opponents.
With training camp starting July 30, that could result in the team keeping a maximum of five receivers on the 53-man active roster when final cuts are made Sept. 5.
"I see it as extremely competitive," wide receivers coach and 14-year NFL veteran Bobby Engram said. "I think you've got a room full of guys, honestly, that can play in this league. Obviously, we know the numbers won't allow that for the Ravens, but I'm very impressed.
"… [It's] just a collective effort to really bring a lot of good football players in here, and it's shown. So I reap the rewards of that one."
The Ravens' 2014 group of six wideouts represented a departure from the team's normal operating procedure.
Despite the drops, wide receivers snagged 176 of the team's 344 catches and grabbed four of the top six positions on the team's reception chart, something that had been done once before in franchise history (1999).
In addition, players responsible for 13 of the team's 29 total drops are no longer with the organization: Smith (six), wide receiver Jacoby Jones (four, on nine targets) and tight end Owen Daniels (three).
Plus, despite the Ravens' poor track record at drafting and developing receivers, they have continued to go to the youth well multiple times during recent years with the acquisitions of third-year player Kamar Aiken, 2015 first-round selection Breshad Perriman, sixth-round pick Darren Waller, 2013 undrafted free agent Marlon Brown and second-year prospect Jeremy Butler to supplement 14-year veteran Steve Smith Sr.
That group doesn't take into account highly touted undrafted rookie DeAndre Carter -- a possible return game option -- and a pair of injured players, last year's seventh-round pick, Michael Campanaro, and former Washington Redskins castoff Aldrick Robinson, both of whom are expected to be back for another rigorous training camp.
"That's one of the great things about the way we practice -- and the way we want to challenge these guys -- is we try to do everything as much as we can [at] game speed or faster," head coach John Harbaugh said. "... We want to build our execution into the tempo of the practice. There are going to be things where it's just overwhelming."
But, as Steve Smith believes, the team's younger receivers seem to have the aptitude -- not to mention the attitude -- to accept the challenge.
"I think it's a hungry, collective group of guys that want to fill that role of Torrey [Smith] departing, so I think that's a healthy, great competition," Steve Smith said. "And guys are, I think, with the draft and the guys who maybe thought they would step into that role now have to fight for it. And I think competition always produces the best out of everybody within a squad of offense.
"Obviously, defense, offense -- that gets a little fiery -- but within [the] offense, guys are rooting for each other. Healthy competition is good."
Presently, there seems to be little doubt Steve Smith will start as the main slot receiver (Y), responsible for mostly possession-type catches, and Perriman will bring his 4.2-second 40-yard dash speed to the split end (X) downfield role.
That would leave the aforementioned receivers fighting for a chance at the flanker spot (Z), where Steve Smith would move when the team employs only two wideouts on certain plays.
Taller targets like the 6-foot-6 Waller -- who was impressive during organized team activities -- the 6-foot-5 Brown and the 6-foot-2 frames brought to the table by Aiken and the underrated Butler could be useful in red-zone situations as well.
However, with offenses around the league trying to be more versatile, such roles are less defined than they used to be. Receivers are expected to be able to learn the entire route tree and run it from all points on the field -- something Torrey Smith attempted to do during his four years as a Raven -- and to be consistent performers within it.
"I think any time you can be a versatile player, it's great," Engram said. "And, obviously, in certain sets, you're going to have starters. I think that's where guys get labeled a No. 1 [target] or No. 2. If you're a starter, you're probably a No. 1 or [No.] 2, but I just look at guys that can play.
"How can guys fit in and help this team win ball games? And again, the more versatile you are, the better you are, the more chance you have of getting on the field."
The adventurous Aiken agreed.
"I like going across the middle, so I've never feared a route going across the middle," Aiken said. "I feel like that's where you make your money at. But [the coaches] do a lot of good things as far as mix and matching, just putting us in different areas [where we are] able to run different routes. So just everything they do, it correlates, and it keeps DBs (defensive backs) on the edge."
Holding on to the ball would also help, as Perriman -- the son of ex-Detroit Lions receiver Brett Perriman -- has been constantly told in the wake of a collegiate career marked by concentration drops, mostly in the early going.
Perriman did drop several passes in spring practices, but he showed a great catch radius, making several spectacular downfield and end zone grabs.
"I feel like I'm doing good," Perriman said. "I feel like I've got a lot of work to do, though. At the same time, I'm not nearly satisfied with how I'm playing. I feel like I'm doing a good job at the same time, but I'm striving for more. I expect more from myself. I feel like I'm doing a decent job, but at the same time [I] just want to keep working, so I can improve my craft."
With a fastidious veteran like quarterback Joe Flacco around, Perriman and the other receivers won't have much choice but to constantly work to improve.
"They're doing a great job," Flacco said. "You can tell some of the young guys were probably a little worn out. We've had them here at 5 o'clock in the morning, and they're running. They're coming out and practicing, so you could tell that mentally and physically they were probably worn out a little bit.
"… The biggest thing is catching the ball, and I think these guys are doing a really good job of that."
They will have to, because those receivers who can't hold the ball this summer won't be able to hold a job this fall.