Wiping out wide-out woes

Sizing up the field of possible new Ravens

February 27, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

INDIANAPOLIS — - If you're a pessimist, you can run down the list of wide receivers who could be available for the Ravens to grab with the 25th pick in the coming NFL draft and find a lot of flaws.

Arrelious Benn had a miserable junior year at Illinois. Georgia Tech's Demaryius Thomas recently had surgery on his foot, and he isn't a polished route runner. Notre Dame's Golden Tate isn't particularly big or fast. Brandon LaFell of LSU has questionable, inconsistent hands and might be just a possession receiver.

But if you're an optimist, there are just as many things to like about each of them.

Benn is big and strong and has exceptional speed for someone 6 feet 1, 220 pounds. Most of his college woes can be chalked up to poor quarterback play. Thomas, before he was injured, looked like one of the most physically gifted wide receivers available. At 6 feet 3, 230 pounds, he shot up draft boards into the first round after rumors swirled that he was running the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds in private workouts. Tate is not only the most versatile, but his stats also blow the rest of the class away. He hauled in 93 passes for 1,496 yards and 15 touchdowns his junior year. LaFell is a big-game player who isn't afraid of contact, and he played in the toughest league in college football, the Southeastern Conference.

The question for the Ravens this week - a question that also likely won't be answered for several months - is simple: Flaws and all, is one of them capable of solving the team's wide-out woes? And will it require a first-round pick to get the one they covet the most, or is it possible they could get him in the second round?

"We still have a lot of work to be done on them," said Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' director of player personnel. "We probably won't make up our minds until right before the draft."

Benn seems to be a popular selection for analysts trying to predict whom the Ravens will take in the first round. A native of Washington, Benn went to the same high school and grew up in the same neighborhood as San Francisco 49er tight end Vernon Davis and his younger brother, Miami Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis. He said he had seen some mock drafts that had him going to the Ravens, and he wasn't disappointed at all.

"Playing close to home [with the Ravens] would be great, a dream come true," Benn said. "But really, I'll play for any team."

Benn won't run a 40-yard dash until Sunday, but DeCosta said he is already impressed by what he has seen on tape.

"He's great physically," DeCosta said. "He's big and strong, he's got a good body and good ball skills, and he's a really good receiver.

"He's a guy who is very impressive on tape. He looks like he could emerge as a No. 1 wide receiver."

Thomas is an intriguing prospect because he might have the most potential of any receiver in the draft. (That includes Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant who will, barring something crazy, be long gone by the time the Ravens pick.) But he's also someone who could tumble into the third, fourth or even fifth round because of his flaws.

He played in a run-oriented offense in college, which turned him into an excellent blocker, but when he did go out for passes, he ran mostly the same route. He was still good enough that he caught 46 passes for 1,154 yards and eight touchdowns, but no one knows for sure whether he can separate from defensive backs in coverage.

"He's definitely someone you're probably going to have to develop as a route runner," DeCosta said. "But he's big and physical and someone who could definitely be one of those explosive game breaker guys.

"We'll have to have our medical people do some work on him to determine the severity of his injury."

Thomas also had some scouts questioning whether his speed was legitimate, and those questions might intensify after he broke his foot during a drill preparing for the combine. He had surgery to insert a screw, then showed up with crutches and wearing a cast this week. He won't be able to run for at least six weeks.

"Once I did it, I felt real bad," Thomas said. "I started crying and stuff. It just hurt my heart."

Tate is undersized at 5 feet 10, but he's hoping people will look at him and see the next Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers. Tate probably won't run the 40 much faster than 4.6 seconds, but he showed at Notre Dame his knack for making plays.

"I think Steve Smith and I have similar size, a similar build, and we're very physical," Tate said. "We're not afraid to go over the middle. I model my game after him. I'm not afraid to go over the middle and catch a ball or throw a block. Also Percy Harvin. I like what Minnesota has done with him this year, moving him all around - in the backfield, in motion, the Wildcat. Hopefully, a team will see that in me and hopefully draft me."

DeCosta said Tate's lack of size isn't that big of a flaw in his game and pointed out that good receivers tend to come in all different sizes.

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