Ravens relish Smith's final season with unproven receivers behind him

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens will gladly reap the benefits of Steve Smith’s final NFL season while knowing the clock is officially ticking for the young group of receivers behind him to grow up.
The five-time Pro Bowl selection’s announcement came as no surprise to the organization after he had contemplated his future following the divisional playoff loss to New England in January. The news may not have any real bearing on the Ravens’ chances for 2015, but it does create a greater sense of urgency for the likes of first-round rookie Breshad Perriman, Kamar Aiken, and Marlon Brown to take significant steps forward by the end of the season.
With Smith being one of just 12 players in NFL history to record 900 catches, 13,000 receiving yards, and 70 touchdown receptions, the group couldn’t have a better example from which to learn.
“If they’re paying attention – it has to rub off, right?” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I’d like to think — especially in that receiver room, but really on our whole team — watch Steve really closely and they watch his competitiveness. The guy has been in this league for so many years at such a high level; he’s doing a lot of things right. How can you not try to learn from him?”
From the moment he arrived in Owings Mills last spring, Smith lived up to the reputation he earned as a fiery competitor with the Carolina Panthers for 13 years. Whether reining in passes from Joe Flacco, mentoring young wideouts, or challenging Baltimore cornerbacks during practices, the 36-year-old instantly made the Ravens a better team and is doing so again this summer, regularly looking like one of the best players on the field despite having nothing to prove after the eighth 1,000-yard receiving season of his career in 2014.
While Baltimore’s young receivers will try to act as sponges absorbing Smith’s lessons as he prepares to walk away from a career that will earn him Hall of Fame consideration, the veteran doesn’t plan to do anything differently in his 15th and final season.
“No sense of urgency. Anything I do, it’s not anything underlining,” Smith said. “I still teach those guys, still talk to them, [and] we still have fun.”
As if the pressure wasn’t great enough on the rookie Perriman to establish himself as a vertical threat in the passing game to replace ex-Raven Torrey Smith, Baltimore will now hope he’s ready to step into a No. 1 kind of role by season’s end knowing that Steve Smith won’t be around as a safety net in 2016. For now, Baltimore will settle for Perriman simply getting back on the practice field as he’s been nursing a knee injury since July 30.
Smith’s announcement doesn’t carry the same magnitude as future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis revealing his intentions to retire just before the start of the 2012 postseason, but the Ravens hope to provide him a similar ending with a Super Bowl championship as a retirement gift.
“We want to go out and let him go out the right way,” said outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, who was a rookie in Lewis’ final season. “The way he’s so hyped, why wouldn’t you want to play hard for that guy? We want to come together. Let him go out the right way.”
Flacco falters
Monday was Flacco’s worst practice of the summer as he tossed an interception to top cornerback Jimmy Smith during a 7-on-7 drill and was picked off by safety Anthony Levine during a full-team period of practice.
Levine was filling in for starting free safety Kendrick Lewis, who sat out Monday’s practice with a leg issue. The hybrid defensive back broke sharply on a pass over the middle intended for tight end Crockett Gillmore.
Flacco appeared out of sync with many of his throws on Monday while backup Matt Schaub had one of his better practices, a sharp contrast from what we’ve seen through much of the first two weeks of camp.
The eighth-year quarterback did redeem himself with a long strike to rookie Darren Waller, who blew past veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb in coverage during an 11-on-11 period of practice.
Return roulette
Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg has said he hopes to see as many return opportunities as possible in the preseason as the Ravens seek kickoff and punt returners to fill the void left behind by Jacoby Jones, who was released in the offseason.
In the Ravens’ first depth chart released last week, Michael Campanaro was listed as the No. 1 punt returner and Asa Jackson as the starting kick returner, but both positions remain wide open.
Campanaro, Jackson, Smith, Webb, rookie free agent DeAndre Carter, and wide receivers Aldrick Robinson and Tom Nelson all took reps returning punts on Monday. Several of those players as well as rookie running back Buck Allen were also fielding kickoffs.
Rosburg has said the preseason games will hold the most weight in determining who will return kicks for the Ravens this season.