Confident Clayton catches on with Ravens

OWINGS MILLS — Mark Clayton isn’t any faster than he was as a rookie last year. He doesn’t run pass patterns any better, and his hands haven’t suddenly become more adept at catching a football.

So, how is it that Clayton leads the Ravens in catches and yards receiving — surpassing former Pro Bowl stars Derrick Mason and Todd Heap?

“He’s matured more than anything,” Mason said Wednesday. “When he came in, of course he could run around, of course he could catch the ball. If he couldn’t, they wouldn’t have drafted him.”

Baltimore drafted Clayton in the first round of the 2005 draft after he set career records at Oklahoma for receptions, yards receiving, touchdown catches and 100-yard receiving games.

Clayton battled hamstring and ankle injuries last season but still set a Ravens rookie record with 44 catches for 471 yards. This year, he’s already got 41 receptions for 502 yards and three touchdowns.

He was sensational at Tennessee last week, catching seven passes for 125 yards, including a 65-yarder from Steve McNair in Baltimore’s 27-26 comeback win.

“This year, I’m a lot more comfortable,” Clayton said. “As a rookie, coming in you’re real confident. Guys tell you it’s still football, so you get in your brain, how much different can it be?

“I picked up what we were trying to do, but defenses are a lot better,” he noted. “Those guys are really smart over there. They anticipate a lot better and know your offense better. I’m just getting used to that chess match.”

Clayton is as versatile on the football field as a queen on a chessboard. He can dart down the sideline, run a crossing-pattern into the middle of the field or even scoot around end in a reverse. That’s one reason why McNair has made a point of getting him the ball, no matter what the situation.

“Mark has really stepped up,” McNair said. “He’s only a second-year guy, but he’s making some clutch catches. He’s doing all the little things right.”

Clayton no longer has to think about a play before running a pattern. It took a year, but now he’s reached the same comfort zone he had at Oklahoma.

“When you’re comfortable on the field and you understand the offensive scheme of the week, it allows you to just go out and play football,” he said. “You work hard all week, then go out Sunday and you’re successful.”

His improvement has caught the attention of opposing cornerbacks — and his teammates.

“From his rookie season, Mark is a different guy. He has a better understanding of the game. Experience does that for you,” Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister said.

Said Mason: “There are a lot of quick and fast guys out there, but the guy that survives in this game is the one that is mature and mentally strong. I think Mark has come to realize that. That’s why he’s doing so well. As long as he continues to grow on the field, the sky’s the limit for him.”