By Joe Platania
As complicated as life can sometimes be, there are problems that can be solved as easily as ABC. But in the world of pro football, it might instead take XYZ.
If any position unit has proven to be a vexing dilemma for the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens this offseason, it has been wide receiver. But how can this be true, especially when the team is coming off a regular-season campaign during which its top three wideouts hauled in 144 catches, the second-highest total during the John Harbaugh era and one of the top five numbers in team history?
That's because the Ravens dealt the unit's most productive player, veteran possession receiver Anquan Boldin -- a player many fans and media practically screamed for the Ravens to acquire before the 2010 trade with the Arizona Cardinals that brought him east -- to the San Francisco 49ers for a sixth-round draft pick, beginning the seemingly endless exodus of older players that left town in Super Bowl XLVII's wake.
Even though he was a Raven for only three seasons, Boldin ranks seventh on the all-time list with 186 catches for a franchise that, before Derrick Mason joined the team in 2005, had struggled to find a consistent "Z" (flanker), a possession receiver that could move the chains and act as a second running back of sorts.
But at 6-foot-1 and 223 pounds, Boldin had even more of the size a Z requires than did Mason, and used it well while shielding defenders. That was especially true during an outstanding postseason run, as he hauled in 22 catches and scored four touchdowns as the Ravens sprinted toward a championship.
What made Boldin even more valuable was his use as the "Y" (slot) receiver, which enabled him to get into space a little more quickly, giving strong-armed quarterback Joe Flacco just enough of an instant to zip a hitch or slant pass his way and gain a productive number of yards.
Now, with both Mason and Boldin gone, the script has been flipped: where the Ravens' offense used to cry out for someone who could stretch the field -- the job of the "X" (split end) -- now it again needs a target to stretch the chains.
The Ravens' dilemma is why terms such as No. 1 and No. 2 receiver are misnomers, because all they symbolize are which players are the top two prioritized targets. They are not clear markers that delineate which players are the downfield specialists and which are more dangerous underneath second-level (linebacker) coverages.
That's why the value of University of Maryland graduate and 2011 second-round pick Torrey Smith has grown exponentially this spring.
Even after only two full seasons as the X, Smith has not only shown the kind of speed that can stretch a defense down the field -- his career 17.1 yards-per-catch average is a franchise record -- his grasp of the entire route tree and ability to gain yards after the catch has already vaulted him into a leadership role, even as the team conducts a search for another veteran in a depleted free-agent market to supplement the unit.
"I feel like it's our responsibility here," Smith said. "... I look at it as a challenge for us. We all understand the offense. We've all watched Anquan. We've all played ourselves, and it's on us to go out there and make it happen. They drafted us and developed us for a reason.
"... We take it as a kind of a challenge to keep this group together and make it so coach [John] Harbaugh and Mr. [general manager Ozzie] Newsome and everyone feels comfortable with us as the guys."
Harbaugh seems to have full confidence in the 24-year-old Smith as the unit's leader.
"He's adjusted quite well," Harbaugh said. "He runs all the routes very well. Torrey is a guy that is only going to get better, because he works hard at it. He's not a guy thinking about anything other than what he can do today to be the best he can be. That's what makes him so good.
"We have a lot of leaders on this team, nobody less than Torrey Smith."
But if Smith is leading, who is following?
Currently buttressing Smith on the depth chart at X is Jacoby Jones, but because Jones is counted on to be the main man in the return game, not even the added stamina and flexibility he said he got from competing on "Dancing with the Stars" during the offseason could be enough to get him on the field consistently, as much as the team would like to see him there.
"I do think that he has the ability," offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "There's no question about that. ... He can catch. He can run. Obviously, he is going to serve our special teams and serve them well in the role that he plays for them. But, obviously, we will use him, certainly, as a big part of our offense as well."
Besides Jones, speedsters LaQuan Williams (University of Maryland, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute) and Deonte Thompson are other candidates for the backup X, but Thompson has also been put to use during spring practices as the Z as part of a three-man contingent -- Tandon Doss and David Reed being the others -- that could replace Boldin.
But Williams was inactive for four games in 2012 and later was put on injured reserve with a thigh injury, and the oft-injured Reed spent the first part of 2012 on the Physically Unable To Perform list with his balky knee. Doss played in 14 games and caught seven passes with one touchdown, but the Ravens don't seem to see him as a reliable red-zone receiver after targeting him there several times late during the 2012 season and during the Wild Card Weekend game against Indianapolis.
Tommy Streeter, a lanky player who was a 2012 sixth-round pick out of Miami (Fla.), and Aaron Mellette, a 2013 seventh-round selectee, are other notable options. But Streeter lost his rookie season to a knee injury and Mellette is currently seen as merely a red-zone target who didn't face the best college competition while at Elon University.
But perhaps more so than the coaches, Flacco has to have confidence in his targets. So far, he said, he does.
"I'm excited about who we have," Flacco said. "I like the idea of having guys that we've had, we've drafted here or we've picked up here, and grooming them and getting those guys to become great wide receivers.
"... One of the biggest things about Anquan is that he knew he was the man. So, when he went out there, he didn't care what happened. He was the man."
For the Ravens to replace Boldin, they will need more than one man. That's as obvious as ABC ... rather, XYZ.
Issue 186: June 2013