WESTMINSTER — A flamboyant showman has repeatedly energized the Baltimore Ravens’ training camp, celebrating touchdowns with elaborate impromptu dance recitals complete with colorful nicknames and flashy renditions.
For veteran wide receiver Kelley Washington, even a first down is reason enough to rejoice.
And he has showed off his fancy steps, including a convincing imitation of middle linebacker Ray Lewis’ trademark dance, throughout camp in the hot Westminster sun.
"Just bringing excitement out to the field," said Washington, who was signed by the Ravens following a minicamp tryout. "Just working on my skills and showing a little excitement, trying to get through training camp, be positive and get guys smiling and laughing. The biggest thing is to bring some type of energy."
Washington has definitely provided that element, strutting and swaggering around the field in a good-natured manner one year removed from catching just one pass with the New England Patriots.
And Washington wasn’t shy about showing off a bit after catching passes of 16 and 15 yards from quarterback Joe Flacco during the Ravens’ 23-020victory over the Washington Redskins to open the preseason Thursday night.
"Kelley, the fact that he goes in there stronger and makes those catches, is what counts," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Kelley plays with a lot of flair and enthusiasm. I think he’s earned the right to do that. We enjoyed how he played. He’s got a lot of work to do, too."
That statement could also be applied to Justin Harper, the slim 6-foot-3, 215-pound wideout who has alternately electrified practices with a series of acrobatic, long touchdown catches while also raising concerns by displaying shaky, inconsistent hands.
Both Washington and Harper are vying for playing time behind the Ravens’ top three wide receivers, Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams.
Against the Redskins, Harper dropped a series of accurate passes that struck him in the hands.
Then, backup quarterback Troy Smith gave Harper another chance in the two-minute offense as he caught a 19-yard touchdown pass that hit him in stride behind former University of Maryland cornerback Kevin Barnes.
Afterward, Harper wasn’t satisfied with his performance in the slightest after catching a team-high four passes for 57 yards.
"I definitely didn’t redeem myself," Harper said. "I’m not wanting to be a 50-50 guy, and I came out of this game being a 50-50 guy. I missed some plays and dropped some balls. I need to be more consistent. That’s what the coaches have been telling me.
"It’s a mindset. I can’t even say it’s tough. That’s my job. I get paid to catch the ball. It has nothing to do with focus. It has to do with me catching the ball. That’s the bottom line."
Selected in the seventh round last year out of Virginia Tech, Harper caught 41 passes for 635 yards and five touchdowns as a senior and returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown in the Orange Bowl.
While catching 83 career passes for 1,338 yards and nine touchdowns, Harper also built a reputation for not living up to his full athletic potential.
Now, he’s trying to shake an inconsistent tag after spending his rookie season last year on injured reserve with a knee injury.
"It was huge the fact that Troy still wanted to come back to me and still had faith in me," Harper said. ".. I can’t even say it was jitters. Those were drops that I know I can’t have. So, I’m far from pleased with my performance. A touchdown doesn’t even matter I had more than two drops, so I know I’ve got to make those plays."
Harper is typically several inches taller and as much as 30 to 40 pounds heavier than his defensive competitors.
It’s a matter, though, of harnessing his size and leaping ability and using those qualities to dominate the secondary.
"If I don’t use it to my advantage, then it’s no good," Harper said. "I have times where I do use it and I have times where I don’t. Why use it sometimes when you’ve got it all the time? That’s my biggest fear with myself, not using all my strengths."
With Clayton sidelined for the majority of, if not the entire, preseason with a left hamstring injury and Williams’ history of durability issues, Washington and Harper are just an injury away from significant playing time.
Especially in the wake of wide receiver Marcus Smith’s season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Ravens need someone to produce behind the starters.
"Anytime you lose an important player like Marcus on special teams and also being a backup receiver, guys are going to have to step up,” Washington said. “I’ll take it upon myself to fill the void, as far as receiver wise, and also on the special teams side because he was a great special teams player. I feel like I want to pick up the slack.”
Washington is a muscular, 6-3, 217-pound former Cincinnati Bengals third-round draft pick who has regularly boxed out smaller defensive backs for the football.
With 73 career receptions for 896 yards and nine touchdowns in six NFL seasons, Washington isn’t necessarily expected to put up huge numbers for the Ravens. If needed, though, he does seem to be the kind of athlete who can get the job done if called upon to expand his role.
Washington isn’t taking anything for granted. Not even the security of his roster spot.
“It’s still an audition for me,” Washington said. “Every day, every player comes out here and you have to prove yourself on a daily basis. You can’t look at what you did in the game.
"You can’t look at what you did yesterday in practice. You’re constantly getting evaluated, so you want to bring your ‘A’ game out here.”