The defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens lost receiver Anquan Boldin in a trade to the San Francisco 49ers, tight end Dennis Pitta to a season-ending hip injury, and backup tight end Ed Dickson in the short term with a hamstring issue that head coach John Harbaugh has termed “week-to-week.” With all the talk about the targets Tom Brady had last season that he doesn’t have now, it would appear that Ravens franchise quarterback Joe Flacco is in danger of starting the 2013 season without 147 of Baltimore’s 2012 receptions in those three players, or 47 percent of Flacco’s 314 regular-season completions.
To stem the tide a little, general manager Ozzie Newsome scanned the market for available free agents, and came up with two names familiar to most NFL fans – tight end Dallas Clark, and slot receiver Brandon Stokley. Current Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was on the Indianapolis Colts’ staff from 2002 through 2011, so he’s very familiar with what both men have done – Clark caught 474 passes for 5,322 yards and 50 touchdowns for the Colts from 2003 through 2011, and Stokley (who began his career with the Ravens in 1999) caught 139 balls for 1,916 yards and 15 touchdowns for the Colts from 2003 through 2006. Both players were primary targets for Peyton Manning in their heydays, and the hope is that they can each reclaim a bit of that magic for Flacco.
“They’re both veterans,” Harbaugh said on Sunday. “They’re both really accomplished players. We’re excited to have them. By no means though is anything guaranteed, and they understand that. They want an opportunity to compete for a job. They’ll be in competition for a job with our guys that are here, and we’ll see how that plays out. That’s how we like it.”
Stokley said that he will practice with the team on Monday, but Clark’s situation is still up in the air. Harbaugh said that the veteran hadn’t taken a physical yet. Last season, Clark caught 47 passes for 435 yards and four touchdowns for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s less a blocking tight end and more a slot/flex guy who could potentially do some of the things Pitta did so well last season. Expecting him to be what he was a few years back seems like a stretch, but the Ravens are not in a position to be extra-choosy. They gave Flacco a six-year, $120.6 million contract extension in March, and they must surround him with reasonable targets if they’re to see an expected return.
“He can play in early downs, obviously,” Harbaugh said, when asked what Clark could bring to the tight end competition. “He’s a great seam and seven-route runner, but he’s also a great stop-option, crossing-route guy. That’s the type of routes that move the chains. He’s got a great catch radius. Those are the things that Dennis excels at, so those are the things that he excels at.”
As for Stokley, it’s all about giving Flacco the same kind of safety valve Boldin provided last season. He’s not as big and physical as Boldin, and he won’t grab contested catches in the same way (with Boldin, it appears as if he’s the defender at times), but Stokley is the proverbial savvy route-runner who can get open in short spaces. He did that in Denver last season, in a reunion with Manning, to the tune of 45 catches for 544 yards and five touchdowns.
Between then and now, Stokley was playing the same waiting game he did before he went to the Seattle Seahawks in 2010, and the New York Giants in 2011. There comes a point in one’s career when the time between phone calls tends to stretch on a bit.
“I hadn’t really heard anything and I was just trying to stay in shape.” he said. “I’ve been in this situation before and I know how it works. Nothing really surprises me.”
Now, Stokley’s got to get up to speed with a team in full training camp mode, which is where all that experience pays off.
“It’s very difficult. You’ve just got to study really hard and get yourself up to speed and do the best that you can … the guys are a lot further along than you, because they had the whole offseason and the training camp so far. But I’m just going to do the best that I can.” The best he can do, and the best Dallas Clark can do, would be a balm for Joe Flacco. In February, he was celebrating a Super Bowl MVP award, and one of the greatest postseasons any quarterback has ever enjoyed. Now, his front office is trying to keep the passing game afloat by any means necessary.