OWINGS MILLS — Anquan Boldin broke free across the middle with a smooth plant, cut and sprint, creating a tiny seam for himself in between defenders.
It was enough for the Baltimore Ravens’ veteran wide receiver to haul in a short touchdown pass in traffic from Joe Flacco during a red-zone drill.
And the well-practiced sequence offered another reminder that Boldin, 31, remains a pivotal figure in the Ravens’ offense despite being the oldest receiver on the roster.
For Boldin, it’s about refining his craft and not taking for granted his hands, crisp routes and blue-collar style. His game still features a vicious stiff-arm.
Boldin is traditionally one of the first players to arrive at practice, conducting a thorough series of drills to get warmed up with high-knee action emphasized to stretch out his legs.
"It’s the same every year," said Boldin, who caught 57 passes for 887 yards and three touchdowns last season. "You try to find different things that you can improve on, because you will never get to the point where you are perfect across the board. So, every year you go back over the last season and look at something that you wish you would have done better and kind of work on those things."
The three-time Pro Bowl selection made a speedy recovery from a partially torn meniscus in his knee that required surgery last December and forced him out of the final two games of the regular season, returning just in time for the playoffs.
He provided a vital downfield threat in the postseason, catching four passes for 73 yards and a touchdown against the Houston Texans.
One week later in an AFC championship game loss to the New England Patriots, Boldin had six receptions for 101 yards.
After catching 707 career passes for 9,244 yards and 54 touchdowns and the fastest player in NFL history to reach the 600-catch milestone two years ago in his 98th career game, four games faster than retired Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison, Boldin hasn’t lost any of his motivational fuel.
"His approach is he starts over every year," wide receivers coach Jim Hostler said. "He may be a little ahead of some of the younger guys with where he is at, but he still starts over meaning that he still comes in with a mindset he’s going to work every day to get better.
"It might be a little different than the young guys. It might be a little bit more precision. It might be a little more detail, but he still approaches it that way It’s still, ‘I’m going to do whatever I can to make this the best year I have ever had."
Boldin declined an offer of a day off granted to veterans who are 30 years and older.
"I kind of stay out there because if you have one receiver that goes down, it kind of messes up the whole rotation," he said. "So, I don’t want to put the guys in that situation. So, I went out there and got a little work. I usually don’t take that option. That’s just because I feel like I need to work. ..
Although Boldin dealt with a sore knee all season last year, he still managed to average a respectable 15.6 yards per reception.
Still, he was never quite fully comfortable because of the knee.
"For me, last year was tough just because I came into camp with the injury," Boldin said. "I had a partial tear of my meniscus the entire year. There were times when it swelled up, and it was tough to get in and out of my cuts. After the surgery, it felt great and I’ve had the entire offseason to rehab and get a lot stronger. For me, I’m moving around a lot better, a lot quicker. I think it shows on the field."
Boldin’s contribution isn’t limited to muscling cornerbacks.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder is entering his 10th NFL season, making him the most experienced receiver on the roster.
He’s also a mentor to the younger receivers.
"It’s outstanding, it’s awesome," said Hostler when asked what it means to have a resource like Boldin. "All the things you could say about how great it is to have a man that can lead men, give direction, show players how it’s done, not just physically but mentally, what it takes to play, how to prepare. It’s outstanding having that example on and off the field."
With the exception of newcomer Jacoby Jones, most of the Ravens’ receivers are in their first few seasons in the league.
Boldin is the veteran they go to for advice about how to sell a route, how to separate from a cornerback with a quick release off the line and the importance of blocking downfield when they’re not touching the football.
"I kind of pull those guys aside and kind of coach them up," Boldin said. "I think coach ‘Hoss’ does a great job of allowing me if I see something to talk to them. A lot of coaches get offended by that, but he is a guy who encourages it. I’m watching when I’m not in, watching the guys, seeing what they are doing, just trying to nitpick and see what things they can do better."
Boldin shrugged off questions about his age, saying he avoids reading about himself.
Since arriving in Baltimore two years ago via a trade from the Arizona Cardinals and being signed to a four-year, $28 million contract that included $10 million in guaranteed money, Boldin has caught 121 passes for 1,724 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He’s hoping his rapport with Flacco and the speedy presence of Torrey Smith and Jones will lead to increased production this fall. It should free up Boldin to operate as a slot receiver more often, one of his strengths.
"Each year, I feel like I get better," Boldin said. "Understanding what the coaches are expecting, what Joe is expecting, one the same page as Joe, seeing what he sees. Me and him, we talk after every play: ‘What are you seeing on this? This coverage, what are you thinking? So, I think as we go on the relationship just grows."
Boldin entered the NFL in 2003 with the Cardinals as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, catching 101 passes for 1,377 yards.
Nearly a decade later, the former Florida State star is still going.
"It’s definitely a blessing for me because the life expectancy in this league is about three years," said Boldin, also mentioning the longevity of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. "We beat the odds. We aren’t satisfied just being on the field. We still want to play at a top level, and that guys are all about.
"In order to play that long, you definitely have to be good at your craft. You have to work on it all the time, but also you need to take care of your body. That’s a correlation with all the guys that been in the league that long."