Ravens' No. 3 receiver spot still up for grabs

First preseason game produces no front-runner

August 14, 2004|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Try not to read too much into Devard Darling's ascent to the starting lineup in the Ravens' 24-0 preseason win over the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday.

Darling knows he is promised nothing. The rookie third-round pick realizes he has a long way to go to get the third-receiver spot, and though the coaching staff felt comfortable enough to run him with the first team in place of a hurting Travis Taylor, the competition among him, Randy Hymes and Ron Johnson is just beginning.

And no one has taken the lead.

"Right now, it's wide-open," said receivers coach David Shaw. "The thing that is most encouraging is that they have all made plays [in practice]. They've shown a capacity to make plays, whether it's jumping and getting it or using speed, size and strength. It's going to be fun."

All have had their training camp moments, but coaches have been upfront in saying the final decision will be based on preseason games. "I wouldn't know what else you base it on simply because that's your purest form for evaluation because it's legitimate competition," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

Judging from Thursday night, nothing was resolved.

Neither Darling nor Hymes recorded a catch, and Johnson had just one for 7 yards. In Darling's defense, all three passes thrown his way were uncatchable (two of Kyle Boller's throws bounced before reaching Darling).

The shutout tempered Darling's excitement in starting his first game.

"That will come," Darling said. "It's a long season, so that catch will come."

Hymes was no more effective. The only pass thrown his way by Boller was off target, spoiling the return of a player many thought would be a starter this time last year before he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason finale against the Giants.

His knee healed, Hymes said he feels as though he is running at the level he was before his season was cut short.

So far, though, he has been fairly anonymous during practices and has only shown a flash of his old self once when he hauled in a 30-yard pass from Boller over Corey Fuller in last week's intrasquad scrimmage.

"All the receivers, we're all competing real good," Hymes said. "I just want to go out there and do the best that I can and have the least mistakes."

If this competition is truly judged mostly on preseason games, chances are Johnson will end up winning.

His best work as a Raven has come before the regular season the past two years, and the Falcons game produced more of the same.

While Johnson had just the one catch, he affected the game by drawing a defensive holding call that converted a third-and-five, helping set up a third-quarter touchdown that put the Ravens up 21-0.

Johnson also had a 10-yard touchdown reception that was overturned by replay after officials ruled his knee was out of bounds when he gained full possession of the ball.

The catch, though, was impressive, as were Johnson's route-running and blocking. For Johnson, this preseason is shaping up to be the same story as last year when he led the team with 12 catches for 200 yards and two years ago when he burst onto the scene as a rookie to catch 13 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown.

Both times Johnson failed to produce such theatrics in the regular season. Now Johnson is fighting for the chance to reverse the trend.

"The preseason is all about momentum," Johnson said.

"I think if I can build on that and continue to do the things I did [Thursday], I'll find my niche. I know I can do the small-to-intermediate slants. I can work in the back of the end zone and fight with [defensive backs]."

What Johnson lacks is big-play ability, something the Ravens are looking to get when they spread the field in three-receiver sets.

Darling is the fastest receiver on the team, and Hymes has his 6-foot-3 height and the best hands behind Kevin Johnson.

Ron Johnson's big advantage, though, comes on special teams, which is part of the reason he still is in the running.

"It will be how they play on offense and how they play on special teams," Shaw said. "Your third, fourth, fifth receivers need to be able to help [special teams coordinator] Gary Zauner on special teams and help us on offense. We're looking for well-rounded, complete players."

Next for Ravens

Preseason matchup: Ravens (1-0) vs. Philadelphia Eagles (0-1)

Site: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia

When: Friday, 8 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Ravens results, schedule

Preseason: 1-0

Date Opponent Time Result/TV

Aug. 12 Atlanta W 24-0

Aug. 20 at Philadelphia 8 p.m. 13

Aug. 28 Detroit 8 p.m. 45, CSN

Sept. 2 at N.Y. Giants 7 p.m. 45, CSN

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