After a slow start, Clayton has found route to success

November 11, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

Derrick Mason spent a lot of the offseason with fellow Ravens wide receiver Mark Clayton. A lot of the sessions weren't about how to run routes, position his hands or study game film.

The most important thing that Mason, a 10-year veteran, taught Clayton was that he didn't have to be a superstar. There are some weeks you make big plays, and some weeks you don't. The key to life in the NFL is consistency.

"He was thinking too much last year," Mason said of Clayton, the Ravens' top draft pick in 2005. "As a first-round pick, everybody is expecting you to come right out of the gate and be that impact player. Mark wanted desperately to be that guy. In this league, it takes time. There might be a week or two where you make plays, but then two ... where you don't. You can't get down. That's where he has matured, and it's been fun watching him develop."

Clayton, out of the University of Oklahoma, is pretty tickled by his success. He didn't know he was tied for the team lead in receptions (34) with tight end Todd Heap until a reporter told him earlier this week. "Me, tied with such a great player? Wow," Clayton said.

It's true, but Clayton also has a team-leading 377 yards in receptions and two touchdown catches. He has blended in well with a receiving group that features Mason, Heap, Clayton and a rising rookie named Demetrius Williams. While Mason seems to be the clutch receiver outside the red zone, and Heap the major target inside it, Clayton has become the all-around weapon.

Need a short pass and a first down? Find Clayton. Need a quick crossing route over the middle? Call Clayton. You need someone to run the reverse or be a decoy on an end-around? There is no better player on the team for the job than Clayton. Shoot, he's even perfected the "catch the deflection" for a touchdown pass, twice bringing in caroms for touchdowns in one game against the Carolina Panthers.

What's the encore?

"I'll do anything they ask me to do," Clayton said, smiling. "Anything. If they want me to run through a brick wall, then that's what I'll do."

Actually, the Ravens would prefer that he keep doing exactly what he is doing. It's quite different from a year ago when Clayton was always behind schedule. He missed nearly a week of training camp because of a contract dispute. While trying to catch up, he had hamstring problems.

That was followed by ankle problems that forced him to miss games 6 and 7. It wasn't until the final quarter of the season that fans started to see the real Clayton, the one who had 221 catches and 3,241 receiving yards during his career at Oklahoma.

But it wasn't until this offseason when he started hanging around Mason that he figured out how to become a pro.

"Derrick helped me a lot dealing with consistency," Clayton said. "In college, I've always tried to be consistent. During the offseason, I hung around someone who had done it for 10 years, and was successful playing at a high level. Now, I have a better understanding of the offense, where I'm going and what I'm supposed to be doing."

Said Mason: "He had to learn to stay focused within a game, to be aggressive on each and every play. He wasn't having fun, and wasn't playing up to the best of his ability. Now, he's playing hard and being physical. You can tell he is having fun out there."

He causes a lot of problems for defenses. Clayton is multidimensional and can play on the outside or inside. When the Ravens go to a three-receiver set, he usually shifts inside to the slot to match up with a No. 3 cornerback or No. 3 safety.

That's a favorable mismatch for the Ravens because Clayton is small and shifty, and because he played a similar role as a Sooner. He has caught a lot of passes this season working underneath defenses. Clayton has also benefited from having Steve McNair at quarterback. The veteran gave him a lot of confidence.

"He's awesome," Clayton said of McNair, almost in awe. "He's a guy who has been successful, been around and he gives us this comfort level on the field. He always lets you know that it's going to be all right. Those two comebacks we staged earlier this season, well, he just walks right in the huddle and says, `OK guys, let's go down and score and get this over with.' He's calm and patient, and gives everybody confidence."

Clayton is no longer looking behind him. During the early part of this season, he still struggled with hamstring injuries, but that hasn't been a problem lately. He hasn't changed his running or stretching routine. He's still getting into cold tubs and getting massages, but according to Clayton, his body has adjusted to pro football.

And apparently, so has his play.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

Read Mike Preston's Ravens Central blog at www.baltimoresun.com/ravenscentral.

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