Imagine a Ravens offense with Brandon Marshall and Roddy White starting at wide receiver, staring down the Pittsburgh Steelers' ragged secondary. Or imagine Vincent Jackson and Jerricho Cotchery running free under Joe Flacco's deep throws. And how would Patrick Crayton look in the slot?
Could've happened. Any combination of the receivers listed above could be wearing Ravens purple, and, in that case, who knows whether Ozzie Newsome still would be trying to pull a playmaking receiver out of his draft hat this month.
In years when the Ravens drafted for reinforcements at wide-out, they passed on these prospects. Instead of Marshall and White, they wound up with Demetrius Williams (2006) and Mark Clayton (2005). Instead of Cotchery and Crayton, they took Devard Darling and Clarence Moore in 2004.
What that shows is not necessarily a flaw in the Ravens' otherwise immaculate draft machine, but the capricious nature of the fickle NFL draft. Selecting a wide receiver from the college ranks is almost as difficult as finding a franchise quarterback.
"I think it's probably the toughest position other than quarterback to learn mentally, coming into the NFL," said Gil Brandt, draft analyst for NFL.com and former personnel director for the Dallas Cowboys. "I think it's a very, very tough position to play because of all the adjustments they have to make quickly. A lot of time, speed is not as important as quickness."
Brandt remembered — accurately — that Clayton led all rookies in 2005 with 44 catches, a promising start. But after he caught 67 in 2006, Clayton's production went down each of the next three years, to a career-low 34 catches a year ago when the Ravens so desperately needed him to be a playmaker.
Even though Newsome scored with a trade for Anquan Boldin and signed Donte' Stallworth this offseason, the general manager intimated the team still will be looking to add a young receiver during this draft.
"Wide receiver still is an important position for us as we head into this draft, when you look at our roster and what potentially could happen to it over the next two or three years," Newsome said.
A review of the Ravens' draft history at wide receiver yields little more than a succession of what-ifs. Starting with Jermaine Lewis in their debut 1996 season, the Ravens have selected 15 wide receivers. Only one — Lewis, a fifth-round pick — went to the Pro Bowl, and he went twice as a return specialist, not as a receiver. (Three of the 15 receivers picked were return specialists.)
The Ravens have been chasing playmakers with speed ever since.
They missed on Patrick Johnson (second round), Travis Taylor (10th overall pick) and Darling (third round) in 1998, 2000 and 2004. Clayton, the 22nd pick in 2005, looked like the answer his first two seasons but has just 12 touchdown catches in five years.
Roddy White, taken by the Atlanta Falcons five picks after Clayton, had 11 touchdowns among his 85 receptions last season. Vincent Jackson, a second-round pick by the San Diego Chargers, had nine touchdown grabs in 2009.
Eric DeCosta, director of player personnel for the Ravens, said they had Clayton and White ranked "very close in the sequence … very close."
"We just looked at both players and watched them both on tape and said, ‘Which one do we like better?'" DeCosta said. "And we said we liked Mark better, for the Ravens."
White has 315 career catches, a 14.9 yard average gain and 27 touchdowns for the Falcons, compared with Clayton's 234, 13.3 and 12.
As for Jackson, 10 teams took receivers before San Diego drafted him in the second round — eight picks after the Ravens took linebacker Dan Cody.
"We liked Jackson," DeCosta said. "He just played at a small school [Northern Colorado]."
It's impossible to know whether White would have had the same success with the Ravens that he has had in Atlanta. It seems obvious some of Clayton's inconsistency is the result of instability at quarterback in Baltimore.
In 2006, the Ravens took Williams in the fourth round, with the 111th overall pick. Eight picks later, the Denver Broncos took Marshall, from Central Florida. Marshall had 101 catches in 2009, his third straight 1,000-yard receiving season. But he had a contentious career in Denver and was traded this week to the Miami Dolphins.
DeCosta declined to say why the Ravens passed on Marshall. Williams, on the other hand, appears to have run out of chances with the Ravens.
In 2004, the Ravens were dazzled by Darling's speed and picked him in the third round. When Darling was recently released by the Kansas City Chiefs, he had 37 career catches, four for touchdowns. Cotchery went to the Jets in the fourth round in that draft; he has 317 career receptions for 16 touchdowns and more than 4,000 yards.