With Derrick Mason gone, the Ravens get a chance to upgrade

Santonio Holmes

The not-yet-official release of veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason opened the possibility of the Ravens making a play for one of the bigger-named wideouts on the free-agent market. Mason is in the twilight of his career, but his ego has shown no signs of decline. As we saw last season, there are only so many balls to go around, and when they aren’t going to Mason's side of the field, he will freely voice his displeasure.

With money and touches -- another important form of currency for NFL wide receivers -- tied up in Mason, it would have been difficult for the Ravens to bring in another starting-caliber wide receiver. And even if Mason returns, which he is said to be receptive to doing, he will come back with a cheaper contract, which will also likely mean he will get a smaller role. A player’s responsibilities often correlate with his salary.

But it appears that many of the top wide receivers on the market will soon be scooped up, dashing the hopes of fans who wanted to see Santonio Holmes or Sidney Rice replace Mason in the starting lineup.

Holmes agreed to a five-year, $50 million deal to remain with the Jets, a sum of money the Ravens don’t have the luxury of handing out to a receiver with Haloti Ngata, Joe Flacco and Ray Rice up for new deals. Meanwhile, Rice is reportedly debating whether to stay in Minnesota or sign with Seattle. A cheaper alternative to Holmes, he had a breakout season playing with Brett Favre in 2009, but his 2010 season was derailed by injuries.

With those two out of the conversation -- along with Santana Moss, who re-signed in Washington -- the Ravens can choose among second-tier free agents such as Braylon Edwards, the Steve Smith who played for the Giants last season, James Jones, Malcom Floyd and Mike Sims-Walker. Or they could replace one old guy with another old guy in Randy Moss or Terrell Owens or a with rusty, old, recently-liberated guy in Plaxico Burress. Those alternatives are not as exciting -- if they want to get flashy via trade, there’s always Carolina’s Steve Smith -- but the Ravens must replace Mason, preferably upgrading the position while doing so.

Mason’s release leaves the Ravens dangerously thin at wide receiver behind Anquan Boldin. David Reed has potential as a shifty slot receiver, but he has zero career receptions. Ditto, obviously, for rookie wide receivers Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss. There’s also the matter of familiarity being lost for Joe Flacco with two of his favorite targets in Mason and tight end Todd Heap gone. What kind of impact will that have on his development?

It might not be as detrimental as you think if the Ravens find the right replacement. Flacco will quickly click with new receivers if they can get open downfield, something that wasn’t a certainty with Mason. Mason is one of the best route-runners in the league and is still pretty reliable when the ball hits his mitts, but the Ravens need an explosive player to pair with Boldin to get the most out of Flacco.

Will they be able to grab one before the shelves are empty?