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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Although heâ€™s winning his personal chess match against NFL defenses, Mark Clayton is far too humble to ever declare a checkmate.
Demetrius Williams, another emerging young wide receiver for the Baltimore Ravens, delivers sincere statements about merely being grateful to be on the roster.
The present and future of the Ravensâ€™ receiving corps apparently didnâ€™t get that memo about diva behavior becoming the norm for several pass-catchers throughout the league.
What they lack in bravado and flamboyance, the duo makes up for by providing skill, confidence along with technically sound routes and hands. The two young receivers put on a major display in a 27-26 victory over the Tennessee Titans.
Clayton caught seven passes for 125 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown. Williams registered career-highs with four receptions for 75 yards in racking up three first downs.
â€œWeâ€™ve got a great group of young receivers, and theyâ€™re taking a lot of heat off Derrick Mason and Todd Heap,â€ quarterback Steve McNair said. â€œI told those guys that they have to continue to step up their game, and theyâ€™ve been productive. Thatâ€™s what theyâ€™re going to have to continue to do for us to get where we want to get.â€
Clayton emerging as the teamâ€™s leading receiver with 41 receptions for 502 yards and three touchdowns has occurred despite the presence of Heap, a two-time Pro Bowl tight end, and Mason, a two-time Pro Bowl receiver.
One year after being hampered by hamstring and ankle injuries as he broke the teamâ€™s rookie records for receptions (41) and yards (477), Clayton is in the midst of a banner season.
â€œHeâ€™s matured more than anything,â€ Mason said. â€œThere are a lot of quick and fast guys out there, but the guy that survives in this game is the one thatâ€™s mature and mentally strong.
â€œI think Mark has come to realize that. Thatâ€™s why heâ€™s doing so well. As long as he continues to grow on the field, the skyâ€™s the limit for him.â€
Itâ€™s the nuances of the position that no longer escape Claytonâ€™s notice one year after being drafted in the first round out of Oklahoma following a consensus All-American career. He ranks second on the team with 24 first downs, four behind Mason, and has converted 10 third downs.
â€œHeâ€™s doing all the little things right,â€ McNair said.
Added cornerback Chris McAlister: "From his rookie season, Mark is a different guy. He has a better understanding of the game. Experience does that for you.â€
Clayton is putting a new unique imprint on an improving passing game with his ability to change directions and accelerate out of his routes and after the catch.
â€œThis year, Iâ€™m a lot more comfortable,â€ Clayton said. â€œAs a rookie coming in, youâ€™re real confident. Guys tell you itâ€™s still football, so you get in your brain, how much different can it be?
â€œI picked up what we were trying to do, but defenses are a lot better. Those guys are really smart over there. Iâ€™m just getting used to that chess match.â€
Meanwhile, Williams, a fourth-round steal out of Oregon who blends size, speed and crisp routes, has made the most out of limited opportunities. As the third wide receiver behind Mason and Clayton, he has caught 11 passes for 177 yards for a team-high 16.1 average per catch.
â€œYouâ€™ve got to know your role,â€ Williams said. â€œMark Clayton and Derrick Mason are our go-to guys for a reason. I was excited to make the team. Now, I want to stay here.
â€œIâ€™m excited and just trying to make the best out of my situation. Everybody starts somewhere.â€
Williams has also demonstrated a willingness to traverse across dangerous territory over the middle. â€œHeâ€™s got a toughness to him for a young player in every opportunity that he gets and in key situations,â€ Ravens coach Brian Billick said. â€œWe need to get the ball to him more.â€
Teammates have noticed a difference in how Clayton approaches the game.
A year ago, he tended to worry about whether he was living up to expectations. Now, he lets the flow of the game come to him in a more natural, low-key approach.
â€œWhen youâ€™re comfortable on the field and you understand the offensive scheme, it allows you to just go out and play football,â€ Clayton said. â€œYou work hard all week, then go out on Sunday and youâ€™re successful.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland