OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Of all the roster defections and body blows the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens suffered after the giddiness of their celebration died down, none has the potential to leave a bigger void than the surprising loss of veteran receiver Anquan Boldin, who was traded (or some would say given) away to the recently vanquished San Francisco 49ers after refusing to downsize his 2013 salary.
You can talk Ray Lewis retirement angle all you want, but Boldin was arguably the biggest reason the Ravens were fitted for the Super Bowl rings they will receive in a Friday night ceremony here at the team complex, playing the offensive catalyst role throughout Baltimore's stunning four-game playoff run. Perhaps the Ravens could have found a way to glory without his team-high 22 catches for 380 yards and four touchdowns in the postseason, but it's almost impossible to imagine how.
That's one reason fellow Ravens receiver Torrey Smith -- and various other Baltimore players -- reacted bitterly to Boldin's departure, tweeting "This business is BS at times'' as he absorbed the shock of the move.
But almost three months later, Smith has come to grips with the new reality in Baltimore. Boldin is gone, and in moving him to the other Harbaugh coaching brother, the Ravens are displaying a good deal of confidence in Smith's ability to ascend to the team's No. 1 receiver role, with all its attendant responsibilities in terms of playmaking and leadership. With every loss in the NFL comes opportunity for someone, and that time is now for the third-year veteran, drafted out of nearby Maryland in 2011's second round.
"I look at it as a challenge for us,'' said Smith after Thursday's OTA work, speaking of Baltimore's young receiving depth chart as a whole. "We all understand the offense. We've all watched Anquan. We've all played ourselves, and it's on us to go out there and make it happen. They drafted us and developed us for a reason, for this time now, to go out there and get it done. So we take it as kind of a challenge to keep this group together and make it so coach [John] Harbaugh and Mr. [Ozzie] Newsome and everyone feels comfortable with us as the guys.''
Statistically, Boldin's team-high 65 receptions for 921 yards (14.2) must be replaced by the defending champs this season. But Smith, who has filled the No. 2 receiver role in his first two years, doesn't have to make a gargantuan leap from a sheer numerical standpoint. As the Ravens' resident deep threat, his 17.4-yard average catch and eight touchdowns led all Baltimore pass-catchers, and his 855 yards ranked second behind only Boldin in that department. Smith's 49 receptions were just fourth on the 2012 Ravens, and his greatest improvement can come in the consistency with which he and quarterback Joe Flacco connect. Last season, Smith caught just 49 of the 110 passes he was targeted on, and that 45 percent success rate was the league's worst among receivers with more than 30 catches and at least 16 yards per reception.
But Smith did have his No. 1 receiver-like moments last season, none bigger than his torching of 12-time Pro Bowl selection Champ Bailey, the Denver cornerback he abused in Baltimore's memorable 38-35 double overtime upset of the Broncos in the AFC Divisional playoffs. Smith caught three passes for 98 yards in that game, badly beating Bailey for first-half touchdowns of 59 and 32 yards to become the first Ravens player to notch two scoring catches in a playoff game. All told, Smith's 16 catches of 20 yards-plus last season were just one fewer than Boldin's team-leading total.
The task of helping replace the receiver who led Baltimore in receiving yardage for all three of his seasons as a Raven, however, has a clear-cut locker room component to it as well. Smith and No. 2 receiver Jacoby Jones, now entering his seventh season, are by far the most experienced hands on Baltimore's receiving depth chart. It's incumbent of them to provide some of the leadership that went west with Boldin, one of the game's consummate professionals.
"I can tell it's a little different,'' Smith said. "The younger guys lean on me. They look at me in a little bit different way, but it's still the same. Leadership-wise, I feel like I do it naturally, so I don't feel like I need to go out there and do anything special.
"In terms of playing, I'm still playing the same position, and I'm just out there growing and trying to get better every day myself. A lot of people are talking about me being a No. 1 this season, but I don't see much difference because last year I got double-teamed, and had the best cornerback guarding me basically every game. So in terms of the attention from defenses, I don't view it as any different.''
There's still plenty of time for Baltimore to add a veteran receiver to the roster if it is deemed a necessity, much like it did two years ago when it traded for Buffalo's Lee Evans in the preseason. But the Ravens are quietly confident their contingent of young receivers is ready to seize the opportunity that awaits, buttressing starters Smith and Jones, not to mention Baltimore's talented pair of tight ends, Dennis Pitta (61 catches for 669 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012) and Ed Dickson (21 for 225). Vying for the No. 3 and No. 4 receiver roles will be 2011 fourth-round pick Tandon Doss, 2012 collegiate free agent Deonte Thompson, 2010 fifth-round selection David Reed, and perhaps 2011 collegiate free agent LaQuan Williams.
Thompson, a burner who has had an eye-opening body of work this spring, is drawing especially strong reviews. He has great hands and gave a sneak peek of how far his rookie-season development had come with a four-catch showing at Cincinnati in Week 17 last December. With Smith, Jones, Thompson and Reed all possessing difference-making speed, this may well be the fastest group of receivers Baltimore has ever fielded. It certainly is the quickest in the looming sixth season of the Flacco era.
"Our guys can run, man,'' said the newly-shorn Smith, who is playing this year without his trademark long hair flowing out the back of his helmet. "I wouldn't doubt it if this is the fastest receivers in Ravens history. You watch these guys on the field, and they can all run. We've got a lot of young guys who people might not have seen play yet, but personally I feel confident that once everyone gets a shot, they'll prove they belong. A guy like Deonte, he can play and it's going to be a case where people are surprised once he gets a chance.''
With Pitta's ability to line up out wide, the Ravens believe they'll be able to consistently challenge a defense with their three- and four-receiver sets. Boldin's calm, cool efficiency and clutch performance will be missed, but the hope is his production largely will be replaced, while Smith's leadership and maturity level continue to grow and deepen.
"There are things that you can only learn by being thrown out there on your own and trying to figure the game out,'' Smith said. "Because there's only so much a fellow player or coach can tell you. Anquan can tell before you go out on the field to look for this or look for that, but then it's up to you to learn the game. That's kind of where we are as receivers here. Everyone's been here in this offense for at least two years now, and we've seen what we have here in practice. No one outside of here has seen it in games yet, so that's the biggest difference for everyone who's not familiar with our receivers.''
The sting of Boldin's abrupt exit having subsided, Smith said he has come around to understanding both the wildly unpopular move and the Ravens' time-tested methods on the personnel front. Even without Boldin's valuable presence in the lineup and the locker room, Smith is convinced the Ravens receiving game remains in good hands.
"I said even when we lost Anquan and a bunch of other guys who were obviously special from a personal standpoint, from a business side it makes sense for [the team],'' Smith said. "I think we have the best GM in the game [in Newsome], and I'd say that if he cut me today, because he has a proven track record and he's the best when it comes to bringing in guys who fit our system and our organization. It's a credit to him, and he's been doing it a long time, and has got two rings on his hand. That's not bad.''
Without a doubt, Boldin's heroics last winter help put ring No. 2 on that hand. But if another piece of Super Bowl jewelry is in the Ravens' not-too-distant future, it'll be up to the emerging Smith and his largely untested fellow receivers to help lead the way to that lofty accomplishment.