-- Derrick Mason certainly doesn't attract the same kind of attention some other wide receivers do. So when the veteran left the Tennessee Titans and signed with the Baltimore Ravens in March, the move didn't garner splashy national headlines.
But in the days following the signing, Ravens wide receivers coach David Shaw said he got calls from coaches and players from the Titans' AFC South opponents. They all passed along essentially the same message, said Shaw: "Thank you very much for getting that guy out of our division. I'm tired of playing against that guy."
"This guy, he doesn't get mentioned with the names of the great ones," Shaw said. "He gets lost in the shuffle. But you talk to the corners, the corners always mention him because he's so hard to cover. He's not flashy; he gets open and catches the ball. He does his job very, very well."
The Ravens have been searching for a productive veteran wide receiver for years, and in Mason, they may have found the player who can help improve a passing game that ranked 31st last season. Mason had a league-best 96 catches last season; in comparison, Baltimore's five wide receivers combined for 121 receptions.
Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller's favorite target has been Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap, but Boller has never had a proven, polished wide receiver like Mason in his two seasons in Baltimore. Mason, 31, is not big (5 feet 10, 192 pounds), but he runs precise routes, has reliable hands and is capable of turning short passes into long gains. He could be a blessing for a young (and occasionally erratic) quarterback such as Boller, who's in his third season.
"I can't describe what an asset it is," offensive coordinator Jim Fassel said. "You want a receiver that doesn't make movements that confuse you about where he's going -- that's kind of like trying to hit a gnat. You want a guy who's smooth. You want a guy who you understand where he's going, you kind of got his body language, and a veteran guy where you know that if you throw it, he can make a play."
Through the first four days of training camp, Mason has been just that.
"When Kyle needs somebody to go to out there in practice, he's always the guy that happens to be open at the right time," said Heap, who described Mason as the best route-runner he's seen in the NFL. "That's going to be exciting to have a guy like that around. We haven't had guys like that step up and make plays since I've been here."
Not that the Ravens haven't tried to bring in that kind of player. Baltimore signed veterans Frank Sanders and Marcus Robinson in 2003; they combined for 45 catches and 621 yards, and neither was retained. Last year, the Ravens thought they had traded for Terrell Owens, but the NFL rescinded the trade, and Baltimore settled instead for Kevin Johnson, who had averaged 66 catches over his first five seasons. Johnson caught 35 passes -- which led the team -- and was waived.
This year, the Ravens got the player they coveted -- a productive wide receiver on the field and a player willing to mentor the team's young receivers -- on the first day of free agency. Mason, who was released by the Titans in a salary cap purge, signed a five-year, $20 million contract, choosing the Ravens over Super Bowl champion New England.
"That was my main thing coming here, to be with a young team, a team that has the potential to win a Super Bowl now. Not next year, not two years from now, but now," said Mason, who has appeared in two Pro Bowls, most recently in 2003. "And not to have to play this defense one or two times a year and possibly have to face them in the playoffs."
Mason was known primarily as a kick returner when he entered the league in 1997. He earned a starting job at wide receiver in 2000 and since has averaged 81 catches and 1,100 yards per season. In the past two seasons, Mason has 191 receptions; only one other receiver has more (Torry Holt with 211).
Fassel, Shaw and cornerback Samari Rolle -- Mason's teammate for eight seasons with Tennessee and now Baltimore -- all used the same words to explain why Mason is so effective: He has a "feel" for the game, born out of many years of playing and studying.
"When we walk out of the meeting, and it's all drawn up on the piece of paper, you don't run routes as a stick man," Fassel said. "You run routes with a feel. You know when to sit. You know when to slide. You know when to change directions. That stuff."
It also helped that Mason played with the same quarterback during his eight years in Tennessee. Steve McNair knew exactly what Mason was going to do, when he was going to break a route or where he liked the ball. Mason has worked hard to establish the same kind of rapport and timing with Boller, from morning workouts in Owings Mills during the offseason to minicamp to training camp.
"I'm just going to continue what I've been doing for the last eight or nine years," Mason said. "That's just to be consistent. They know what they're getting from me, each and every day."
Ravens Notes: Running back Chester Taylor, who has been working with the starters in Jamal Lewis's absence, collapsed on the field with heat exhaustion during the morning practice and was taken to the locker room on a cart. Defensive tackle Kelly Gregg hyperextended his elbow and left the morning practice early. Return specialist B.J. Sams sat out of both practices with a tweaked hamstring. All three players are day-to-day.