The Baltimore Ravens finished the 2020 season as the top rushing offense for the second straight year but ranked 32nd in the league in passing yards per game (171.2).
Their fans and countless media pundits have been clamoring for the team to find a ‘true number 1 wide receiver’ by either trading up in the draft or signing one of the best available veteran free agents for what seems like the entire history of the franchise.
The Ravens are renowned draft gurus who are revered for being able to find talent in every round and especially in undrafted free agency but the receiver position has been one that they have historically been poor at drafting and developing.
While they haven’t been afraid to make select free agents on defense the highest or among the highest paid at their respective position at the time of signing, going after the biggest names on the free-agent market on offense hasn’t been a common practice either, even though they are routinely listed as likely suitors to pursue the pending unrestricted veteran receivers every year.
Will this year be the year that they do more than just dip a toe in the veteran free agent pool by bringing in a salary cap casualty or post-June cut that is longer in the tooth than most, like they have in recent memory with players like Steve Smith Sr, Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin?
Let’s examine and then weigh the risks versus the rewards of the Ravens signing an established and relatively young veteran free agent wideout:
Look no further than the team that beat the Ravens in the Divisional Round of the playoffs to see the transformative power of acquiring and investing in a top target for an ascending young quarterback.
The Buffalo Bills gave up quite a bit in draft capital—three 2020 picks and one in 2021—and took on a hefty contract to facilitate a trade that paired Josh Allen with sixth-year pro Stefon Diggs. Despite not having any semblance of a real offseason program or a preseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two displayed immediate chemistry on the field which led to career-years for both of them.
Allen, who was selected in the same year and round as reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson (2018), was named to the All-Pro second team and is a dark horse candidate to win the MVP this year. He threw for a career-high 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns—eight of which went to Diggs—completed a career-high 69.2 percent of his passes and threw just 10 interceptions.
In his first season in Buffalo after spending the first five years of his career in Minnesota with the Vikings, Diggs set new career highs for and led the league in targets (166), receptions (127), and receiving yards (1,535). His presence helped take the third-year signal caller’s game and the Bills offense as a whole to another stratosphere in 2020.
With the dynamic duo of Allen and Diggs leading the charge, Buffalo went from averaging 201.8 (26th) passing yards per game in 2019 to 288.8 (third) in 2020 and improved from 23rd in scoring offense in 2019 to second in 2020.
Getting the picture yet? Big-time players help other big-time players make big-time plays more consistently.
If you’re still not convinced on how the impact that an elite talent at wide receiver can make an already hard to defend player even more dangerous and seemingly unstoppable, look at what the arrival of five-time Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins did for the career arch of Kyler Murray. Hopkins was traded to the Arizona Cardinals after spending the first seven years of his career with the Houston Texans.
Before injuries and overall team stagnation derailed the Arizona Cardinals 2020 season, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year was having a sensational sophomore season and had his prized offseason acquisition to thank for most of it.
Under the same adverse circumstances as Allen and Diggs in Buffalo, Murray and Hopkins didn’t have a whole lot of time prior to training camp to get well acquainted but that didn’t stop them from hitting the ground running either.
Through Arizona’s 6-3 start to the season, the dynamic duo in the desert connected 67 times for 861 yards and four touchdowns on 88 targets. Murray finished with 3,971 yards and 26 touchdowns passing—six of which went to Hopkins—and completed a career-high 67.2 percent of his passes.
Hopkins tied his career-highs in receptions (115) and catches per game (7.2) caught a career-high (71.9) percent of his targets and recorded the second-most receiving yards of his career (1,407). Both players were named to the Pro Bowl in their first season together.
The biggest reason that the Ravens have historically been dissuaded from bringing in big-name receivers is that the premium salaries that they command would reduce their what seems like perpetually limited cap space.
That means that there would be considerably fewer resources that could be allocated to strengthen, replenish or overhaul other spots on the roster if they were to invest heavily in one player even if it is a perceived desperate need.
The Ravens have been fortunate to have received more offensive production from their offense relative to the amount of cap dollars on the books than any other team in the league over the last two years.
It is a benefit of having such young talent playing on rookie contracts but that is subject to and is already changing. They just inked stalwart left tackle, Ronnie Stanley, to a big multi-year extension, are reportedly going to engage in contract talks with Jackson this offseason, and have several other pressing needs on both sides of the ball that need to be addressed in the coming months.
Baltimore has taken the same build though the draft approach with the receiver position as they have with nearly every other position on the team. They have selected two players at the position in each of the past three drafts but only four of the six are still on the roster and of those four only one—Marquise Brown—has eclipsed 500 yards receiving at least once.
Their injection of young talent at the position will likely continue this year even if it is with just one rookie and not two. With significant draft capital already pumped into their pass-catching corps and more expected on the horizon, the team might be reluctant to pay the big bucks to a veteran that will take snaps away and potentially stunt the development of their younger players.
The old cliché says that “experience is the best teacher” and in a run-first offense that hardly passes the ball, opportunities to gain experience and put up bigger numbers would be even more limited with the arrival of an established yet exceedingly more expensive veteran.
I have long been opposed to hopping on the Ravens signing a big-name free agent to be their ‘true number 1’ receiver bandwagon because I am a firm believer that the Ravens’ shortcomings in the playoffs can be chalked up more to a bad day at the office compounded by a series of unfortunate events rather than an indictment on their ability to field and execute a competent passing attack.
However, after seeing what a player Diggs, who was thought of as a good but not truly transcendent player prior to this year, did with and for the Bills offense and specifically for the maturation of Allen as a lethal dual-threat quarterback, it has convinced me that rolling the dice on an unproven rookie or less-heralded player that’s been with the team for a short time might not be the best formula.
All four of the teams made it to Conference Championship Sunday for a chance to advance to the Superbowl featured a dynamic quarterback-wide receiver duo.
I’ve already mentioned the Allen and Diggs connection in Buffalo, then there’s the deadly Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams combo in Green Bay with the Packers. In the case of Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay and Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Kansas City, it’s a pick your poison situation for opposing defenses because they both have elite pass catchers in spades.
If the Ravens plan to capitalize on the wide-open championship window that comes with having a league MVP still playing on a rookie contract, signing or trading for a proven playmaking wideout at the NFL level could be the last piece to the passing game puzzle before the window begins to shrink as the other young cornerstones come up for new deals and tough decision have to be made.
The top wide receivers slated to hit the open market are Allen Robinson of the Chicago Bears who fans are already penciling into a Ravens jersey, Juju Smith-Schuster of the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, Kenny Golladay of the Detroit Lions, Chris Godwin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Will Fuller of the Houston Texans.
As far as potential trade targets at the position that the team could explore, there’s Julio Jones and the cap-strapped Atlanta Falcon who might be ready to move forward with Calvin Ridley as their new No. 1 or they could orchestrate a tag and trade with the Buccaneers for Godwin.
The trade route has often been the Ravens preferred method for acquiring assets from other teams because it allows them to massage the immediate and future cap hits of the incoming player with an extension. And it wouldn’t count against them in the compensatory pick formula of which they have been the league’s best at maneuvering for the last quarter century.
General Manager Eric DeCosta addressed the hot offseason topic in his end of the season press conference on Monday and while he admitted that he’d like to improve the group of pass catchers at Jackson’s disposal in the coming months, he believes improving the entire roster is the prime directive.
“There are a lot of things we can do. It’s not all about getting the ‘No. 1’ receiver that everybody likes to talk about,” DeCosta said.
“We will certainly look at that. We will try to upgrade at every single position on this football team this offseason if we can, based on the parameters of what we have to work with draft pick-wise, money-wise and all the other challenges associated with building a football team.”