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One more shot for Mason, Ravens

Charles Robinson
Yahoo Sports

Charles Robinson is now on Twitter. You can follow him at @YahooSportsNFL.

WESTMINSTER, Md. – When Mark Clayton(notes) made the call last month, he was certain Derrick Mason(notes) was gone. So sure, he put the odds of a return at 1 percent. Mason was already talking about his future and his family, and had been sarcastically wishing teammates good luck in the heat of Westminster training camp. But Clayton couldn't resist planting one more seed in their last conversation.

"We're so close," Clayton told Mason. "We've got a chance to win a Super Bowl. Come back and get a ring and ride off into the sunset. Then you can feel good about it."

"I can't do it, dawg," Mason replied. "I just can't do it."

And that was that, Clayton thought. The man is at peace with it. The Baltimore Ravens had to move forward without him. And what seemed to be one of the best-rounded NFL elites suddenly had a question mark curling around its championship hopes.

That is, until Saturday afternoon, when players saw Mason's slate-colored Lamborghini double-parked in front of the Westminster Best Western. Inside, the Ravens' leading receiver was meeting general manager Ozzie Newsome, putting the finishing touches on his return. Setting the stage for his ride into the sunset, as Clayton might have put it.

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Ravens WR Derrick Mason caught 80 passes for 1,037 yards and 5 TDs last season.
(Geoff Burke-US Presswire)

"You never want to lose a guy like Derrick Mason, no matter what position he's playing," said Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce(notes). "He's the best football player on this team – if not the best, one of the top three. He's got athleticism, experience, big plays and toughness. A guy like Derrick doesn't just come along. Every team might have one or two. You lose a guy like that and it hurts."

Indeed, when training camp opened, Mason's absence created an unmistakable void on offense. It threatened to plunge one of the AFC favorites into a tough spot – with no proven No. 1 wideout in an offense that should expand considerably this season. But his return reaffirms what the rest of the NFL will quickly find out: Buoyed by a mixture of developing young players and seasoned veterans, the Ravens should be one of the league's most balanced teams in the NFL next season.

The Baltimore team that was one or two plays from advancing to the Super Bowl last season might actually be better in 2009, despite losing defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and outside linebacker Bart Scott(notes). While the past few weeks have been marked by the fretting over Mason's status, his return shifts the focus back to the growth Baltimore hopes to see in the coming weeks. The offensive playbook is expected to be expanded by coordinator Cam Cameron. Second-year quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) is expected to take a leap forward in both command and confidence. And several other young players – running back Ray Rice(notes), right tackle Michael Oher(notes) and linebacker Tavares Gooden(notes) – are expected to deliver adrenalin shots on both side of the ball.

"Things have kind of settled down compared to last year," Pryce said. "A year ago, it was a new coach, a new quarterback, and some other things. Now it's all kind of old hat. People know what to expect, so it's just about moving forward, getting better."

Even with the losses of Ryan and Scott, the defense appears to be seamlessly moving forward, much the way it did following the departures of Marvin Lewis and Mike Nolan before Ryan. Players say new coordinator Greg Mattison has proven to be more of a delegator of responsibility than Ryan, allowing position coaches and players to run their respective pieces of the unit.

It helps that the veterans have rebounded nicely from last season. Safety Ed Reed(notes) is finally returning to full health from nerve issues in his neck. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs(notes) is in camp early for the first time in years. And a lighter, faster Ray Lewis(notes) (supposedly down 20 pounds from last season) continues to defy time. Even Gooden, who is taking over Scott's position, appears to have made the linebackers as fast as they have been in years.

All of which made Mason's situation the sole troubling point of camp. While many thought he would return to the team eventually, there didn't appear to be any guarantee. And almost nobody could agree on the reasoning. Whether it was needing to be with his family, the Steve McNair(notes) tragedy or his contract, he appeared to have a variety of motivations for stepping away.

But none of that mattered with his return Saturday – not with a passing game that's aching for bigger plays and more consistency. Now it's an offense that appears to have all of the major pieces in place. Rice looks to be ready to lead a three-man platoon in the backfield, along with Le'Ron McClain(notes) and Willis McGahee(notes).

That backfield's effectiveness should be boosted by the addition of rookie Oher, who has wasted no time wowing veterans. His first day was so impressive, Suggs told other teammates that Oher was the real deal.

"Anytime you get Suggs saying that, it's pretty good," Flacco said. "I should have no problem getting comfortable behind [Oher]. He's a big kid who can really move. You love to see that. He can really move with those outside guys coming off the edge."

The rookie's strong showing has been one of the pleasant surprises of camp. It dovetails nicely with the other expectations of growth from Rice, left tackle Jared Gaither(notes) and Flacco, who has shown a distinct confidence entering his second year.

Cameron is expected to expand the offense generously this year, including new wrinkles that could get tight ends Todd Heap(notes) and new addition L.J. Smith(notes) on the field at the same time. The hope is that Flacco's growth will help maximize more downfield opportunities in the passing game, especially now that he has become more adept at reading defenses and then recognizing individual mismatches within a particular scheme.

"We've got to have more explosive plays from the passing game," Newsome said. "How Cam engineers that, I don't know. But we've got to have more explosive plays because that changes field position and accentuates our running game."

The receivers will likely fall back into last year's roles, with Mason the possession target and Clayton and Demetrius Williams(notes) the big-play targets. But there will be particular pressure on Williams, who has been injured the past two seasons and has yet to make good on his speed and athleticism. While the Ravens have been patient with him, there is a palpable feeling coming from the front office that this is the year he needs to take a step forward.

"He's got to go out there and do it," Newsome said.

The same could be said for the entire franchise. With an AFC South that appears to be returning to strength, and conference powers Pittsburgh and New England seemingly standing in the way, the Ravens have their work cut out for them.

"The pressure is there for some guys to step up this season," Flacco said. "But that pressure is there for all of us. Opportunities don't come without pressure."

Charles Robinson is now on Twitter. You can follow him at @YahooSportsNFL.