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7 Points: Ravens need a receiver now
Point 1: The Baltimore Ravens must upgrade their wide receiver corps before September.
If the Ravens want to stay among the playoff-caliber teams in this year's AFC Championship race, they need some more talent at the wide receiver spot.
Baltimore finished 27th in receiving last year, averaging just 192.8 yards per game. And although the team was breaking in a rookie quarterback, the guys running routes have to shoulder their share of the blame for that lackluster result.
Derrick Mason caught 80 passes for 1,037 yards in 2008, placing him in a tie for 16th-most receptions in the league. But Mark Clayton was only an adequate complement with 41 catches for 695 yards in 13 starts. Fourth-year receiver Demetrius Williams has yet to fulfill his talent potential as injuries have limited his game appearances over the past two seasons. And Yamon Figures has primarily made a name for himself as a return specialist so far.
No one else on the roster has shown an ability to be a top-three level talent yet. And while the team has Todd Heap and L.J. Smith at the tight end positions, they need to stay healthy for a full season for the team to get the full benefit of their collective talent as receivers.
Bottom line, if the team wants sophomore quarterback Joe Flacco to continue to progress, they should grab at least one more target who is a great possession receiver.
Despite the media flurry over the possibility of the Ravens pursuing Brandon Marshall, and the team's obvious need for someone with his overall ability, he doesn't seem to be a strong character fit for Baltimore. I just have a hard time seeing head coach John Harbaugh putting up with any off-the-field problems of the type that have haunted Marshall over the past few years.
So what can they do at this late date? The Ravens should consider putting a one-year deal on the table in front of former-Colt Marvin Harrison or former Titans and Rams receiver Drew Bennett. While both had highly forgettable seasons in 2008 due to injuries, they are disciplined route-runners with great hands. While they may not be consistently serious deep threats anymore, both men can find openings in the short-to-medium passing game, providing Flacco with reliable targets who can get open in seconds for quick strikes that would help the offense move the chains.
The 30-year-old Bennett would likely be the most economical choice and, as a result, the lower risk from an injury perspective. But Harrison would likely have a more dramatic impact on the team's success if he could stay healthy.
While the former Colts star seems more likely to retire, Bennett's reportedly drawn interest over the past couple of months from the Falcons, Buccaneers, Browns and Titans. So if the Ravens are interested in him, they shouldn't wait much longer. I think he's worth a shot.
Point 2: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should suspend wide receiver Plaxico Burress indefinitely.
According to his lawyer, Burress may not face the music for felony gun possession until early next year. That's left the wide receiver and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, hopeful that a team will want to sign him for the 2009 season.
"We are also confident that the NFL will not have grounds to discipline Plax until after the adjudication of his case after this season," Rosenhaus stated through his Twitter account back on June 15.
But reports out of New York indicate that Burress could be indicted before the end of July. And his next scheduled court appearance is currently set for Sept. 23.
In other words, no one really knows. And therein lies one of the big reasons why Commissioner Goodell should simply suspend Burress indefinitely.
If he's not convicted of a crime, the length of his resulting suspension should at least be merely a few games to reflect his reckless stupidity. The commissioner could credit any missed action this year as counting against that suspension. But if he becomes a convicted felon, the indefinite status of his suspension should stay intact. No further review would be needed until he resolves his issues with the State of New York through jail time or whatever punishment is imposed.
While some might argue that Burress has already been punished enough by his 2008 suspension by the Giants, public ridicule and his gunshot wound, I can't buy into that. Because at the root of all of Burress' woes is one simple, but huge problem that was captured in this simple quote by Giants wide receiver Steve Smith after Burress was suspended for a game last year for missing a practice.
"Plax is Plax, he does what he wants," Smith said.
Well, this is one time that Burress shouldn't be allowed to do what he wants. He shouldn't be rewarded with a new NFL contract and millions of dollars just because his lawyer succeeds in pushing his trial out into 2010.
Point 3: Former Cowboys defensive lineman Chris Canty is ready to turn up the volume in New York.
After a very successful four-year run in Dallas that included 34 starts, 148 tackles and 10 sacks, Chris Canty received a six-year deal valued at $42 million from one of the Cowboys' division rivals the New York Giants.
"Quite frankly, I didn't think this option would be here because this team is so talented, particularly on the defensive front," Canty said during a recent phone interview. "You know, I didn't anticipate them coming after me as aggressively as they did. But I'm definitely excited about the opportunity, to come here and play for the Giants."
While adjusting to a new playbook and teammates, the 6-foot-7, 304-pound lineman has also been slated to take on a new role. His defensive line coach, Mike Waufle, has him primarily taking reps at the defensive tackle spot instead of right defensive end. But Canty told me that he's going to be moved around a bit, so he'll likely get some opportunities from the outside as well. And that's not the only change that Waufle has planned for his new student. During the former-Cowboy's free agency visit, Waufle shared some of his observations and his expectations in case Canty landed in New York.
"Basically he felt that I was a physically-gifted player, but there would be times where I wouldn't play hard by his standards and I wasn't aggressive enough," Canty said. "So he emphasized to me to be very aggressive not over-aggressive but be very aggressive and just turn up the volume."
Before heading to his first training camp with the Giants and battling for his spot on the line, Canty will be helping in the battle against Juvenile Diabetes through the Chris Canty Camp of Champions this week.
"We'll provide a fundamental football camp where kids will learn teamwork, communication, and the importance of education. It'll be a really great event for the kids," he said. "And on top of that, all the proceeds that we get from our sponsors and from donations goes to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to help children in the greater Charlotte area that are battling Type I diabetes."
The event is being held from June 25 to June 27 in Charlotte, North Carolina. More details are available at chriscanty99.com.
Point 4: If Dre' Bly has a big year in San Francisco, it'll literally be at Denver's expense.
There's little debate that the Broncos took a significant talent hit when they traded disgruntled quarterback Jay Cutler to the Bears. And now wide receiver Brandon Marshall is doing his best to create a distraction of equal magnitude in the hope of creating a similar outcome.
Lost amidst all that craziness coming out of Denver is the other big blow that was absorbed by the team back in February when they released veteran cornerback Dre' Bly. That decision is forcing the team to carry $9.7 million in dead money against their salary cap due to prorated bonus money they have to account for this year.
Although Bly posted a career-high 62 tackles during the 2008 season, his eight passes defended was his lowest total since 2001. And his pair of interceptions was his lowest production in that important area since 2002.
San Francisco turned to Bly as a potential starter after Walt Harris suffered a serious knee injury during offseason workouts. He signed a one-year NFL minimum deal for $845,000 that includes a roster bonus of $20,000.
But get this. San Francisco can take advantage of the league's "minimum salary benefit", a clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that encourage teams to sign veteran players by lowering their salary cap hit to the equivalent of a second-year player. So while Bly will earn $845,000 in salary, the team will only take a salary cap hit of $460,000.
As a result, the 49ers could end up plugging Bly in as a starter for roughly five percent of the cap hit that the Broncos will be absorbing this year while Denver watches him play elsewhere.
Point 5: Dolphins WR Davone Bess will once again make 31 teams wonder how they overlooked him during the 2008 NFL Draft.
The former Hawaii wide receiver really impressed me back in February, 2008 during a one-hour session where selected members of the media were able to view an hour of quarterback and wide receiver workouts at the NFL Combine. Afterward, I wrote that Bess, "did some outstanding work during the gauntlet drill, showing his quick reaction time, good acceleration and strong concentration skills. But he also impressed with his cutting skills while running his routes and for his ability to locate the ball and make over-the-shoulder catches in stride."
Despite three consecutive seasons of at least 1,100 yards receiving, including an outstanding senior year in which he made 108 catches for 1,266 yards and 12 scores, no one used a draft pick on the talented young player.
I'm not sure who was stunned more by that oversight me or Davone Bess.
"Obviously, it was really disappointing not getting drafted," he told me during a recent interview. "But at the same time, I use every negative thing and turn it into a positive. I try to just go out and prove everybody wrong."
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Bess signed a free-agent contract with the Dolphins and made the roster. And when Greg Camarillo was felled by injury, the hungry rookie stepped in and made people notice that he has the skill to play in this league.
During the final six games of the season, Bess averaged nearly six catches per game with 35 receptions for 366 yards. Over the complete span of his rookie season, he pulled in 54 balls for 554 yards and one touchdown.
Denver's Eddie Royal (91) and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson (62) were the only rookie wide receivers with more catches. But considering they each started 15 games compared to Bess' six, you have to believe that Bess could put up some big-time numbers this season if he can pick up where he left off.
"I feel good right now," he said. "Obviously, having a year under my belt, I'm going out there a lot more confident. I can just go out there and play ball now."
Point 6: If linebacker D'Qwell Jackson's assessment is on the money, Browns fans could see a big improvement in Cleveland this year.
In 2008, his third NFL season, Jackson posted a career-best 154 tackles. A rare talent who started 13 games during his rookie season, the 6-foot, 240-pound linebacker has emerged as a central and formidable figure in the Browns defense. But despite his personal success, his first three seasons weren't exactly smooth sailing for him or anyone else on the roster.
"You know, I would have to say one of the most challenging points of being in this organization so far is obvious to everyone. We haven't put up the amount of wins that we've wanted in the past," he said during a phone interview. "We've had a good group of guys every year I've been in the organization, it's just been an up and down road."
But during the offseason, Cleveland handed the on-the-field leadership of the team over to former Jets head coach Eric Mangini. And Jackson says the change has truly had a sudden and dramatic impact on the team.
From Day One, I've noticed a difference," Jackson said. "He's brought a different mindset here, a different accountability towards players and towards coaches and it's rubbing off on all of us."
Perhaps one of the most significant changes is that Mangini and his coaches are taking the time to make sure the players understand the game like they do so that everyone can be on the same page during live game action.
"They want us to understand a concept of why we're running a particular play or why we're doing different things in practice," Jackson explained. "Everything we do applies to a game situation, and when that situation comes up in a game; because we rep'd it so many times in practice, it becomes second nature to us.
"He's always preaching about certain situations and stats. He doesn't just spit it out, he asks questions and he expects us to know it."
Undoubtedly, one thing that Mangini and his staff knows that they will be able to count on from Jackson is a full 60 minutes of consistent effort and results. During the 2008 season, 82 of his tackles were made in the first half while 72 were made in the second half.
"That's one thing I'll give to my Uncle Charles," the Browns linebacker said. "I've been playing since I was about 7-years-old. He always preached that everybody is good at the beginning of the game.
"One thing I do pride myself on is the conditioning part of it practice fast, and play faster. In the course of a game you have everything weighing on you. You've got the crowd noise, the situation, you're banged up, you're tired but that's when the true guys arrive at the top. Every guy in this league, at least in my eyes, tries to prepare to be that top guy not at the beginning of the game, but when your team needs it the most and when you're dead tired."
Point 7: I was glad to see that former Rams defensive end Deacon Jones is being thrust into the spotlight again.
The St. Louis Rams announced that one of the most terrifying defensive ends to play the game, David "Deacon" Jones would have his No. 75 jersey retired this year. That's just one more well-deserved honor for the man who is credited with coining the phrase "sack" and who was so masterful at using the headslap that the league eventually abolished it.
The 6-5, 272-pound lineman was a longshot, a 14th-round selection by the Rams who had extraordinary range and speed for his size. He played for the Los Angeles Rams from 1961 through 1971 and was part of the "Fearsome Foursome" with Merlin Olsen, Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy. And although sacks weren't an official statistic back then, the "Secretary of Defense" was credited with a franchise-best 159.5 during his 11-year career in Los Angeles. By the time he completed a pair of seasons with the Chargers and one more with the Redskins, he had increased the tally to an astonishing 173.5.
I was in high school when Jones wrapped up his noteworthy NFL career. So while I was growing up, I watched in awe as he used his combination of quickness and brute force to bully his way into the backfield, forcing usually poised quarterbacks like Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr to run for their lives.
"You kill the head of the snake, the body dies. He (the quarterback) is the rallying point," he told the Los Angeles Times' Jerry Crowe earlier this year.
That's the kind of attitude that Jones projected every time he stepped onto a football field. He was all-business with a healthy dose of loathing for whoever was carrying the football.
A never-quit tough guy who missed only five games out of 196 regular-season contests, Jones was voted to nine Pro Bowls, was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1967 and 1968, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980.
Jones will be the seventh Ram to have his jersey retired, joining an elite group that includes Bob Waterfield, Merlin Olsen, Jackie Slater, Jack Youngblood, Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com.