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What does a ‘true No. 1 receiver’ look like in the Ravens’ offense?

Stats don’t tell the full story of the top wide receiver in a dominant rushing offense.

Wild Card Round - Baltimore Ravens v Tennessee Titans Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The hottest offseason topic among Baltimore Ravens fans and pundits that closely cover the team has been centered around the wide receiver position. Even though there are arguably more pressing needs on the roster such as center and potentially right tackle if Orlando Brown Jr. is ultimately traded, all anyone seems to want to talk about is getting Lamar Jackson a ‘true No. 1 receiver’.

The Ravens’ coaching staff and front office brass are committed to going forward with the run-first offensive approach that has produced the league’s most potent and productive scoring unit over the last two years. They have also rewritten the rushing record books for both team and individual success at the quarterback position.

However, with great rushing success, comes far few passing attempts so it is not all that surprising that the Ravens finished as the top rushing offense by a wide margin for a second straight year and consequently finished last in passing yards and attempts.

Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman’s passing attacks have historically been more tight end friendly and haven’t featured the wide receiver position as much. While this trend might be subject to change this offseason with the addition of Keith Williams and Tee Martin to the coaching staff as the Pass Game Specialist and Wide Receivers Coach, respectively, it raises a question that no one is really talking about.

What does a ‘true No. 1 receiver’ even look like in the Ravens’ offense?

To provide the best possible answer, an accurate assertion of the situation and context must first be given.

The Ravens have ranked dead last in both passing attempts and completions in each of the last two seasons but have also recorded the first and 13th most passing touchdowns over that span.

The stark differences in those two sets of stats dispel the narrative of ineptitude that is continuously being spun. They actually indicate that the Ravens’ aerial approach can be and has been just as potent as many of the high-volume passing attacks that have become the new normal.

Their low volume-high efficiency passing offense means that their wide receiving core and passing catching group as a whole, that includes tight ends and running backs, gets the least amount of balls thrown their way of any in the league.

Last season the passing game was mostly funneled through Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews and second-year receiver Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown as evident by the fact that they tied for the team lead in receptions (58), finished first and second in both receiving yards and touchdowns, and accounted for nearly half of the teams total targets (188-of-392).

Even those two have to make the most of their limited opportunities and the room for error for the others is even more razor-thin since they might go weeks without receiving more than two targets in a given game.

Brown was drafted 25th overall two years ago out of Oklahoma with the hopes that he would bring another explosive element to the offense. He flashed as a rookie and became their leading receiver last season.

He was the most targeted Raven in the regular season and led the team in both receiving yards and touchdowns. While he struggled with drops during a rough patch in the middle of the year, he came on strong down the stretch and had two impressive outings in the postseason as well.

Brown’s late-season emergence provided a glimpse of what he could become and gave fans hope that he can develop into a ‘true No. 1’. In the eyes of some, he already is and could’ve had an even more productive sophomore season if more of the balls that were thrown his way were consistently on target.

There were several instances in both the regular season and playoffs where Brown had his defender beat deep and was streaking wide open down the field for what would’ve been walk-in touchdowns.

While weather played a factor at times and inconsistent pass protection was to blame for others, like in Buffalo during the divisional round loss to the Bills where the wind and a missed block cost two sure-fire scores to Brown, far more in the regular season were just simply due to missed opportunities on under and overthrows.

Here are prime examples of all three:

Brown’s connection with Jackson is strong on and off the field. With any semblance of a normal offseason this year, that will hopefully translate to better and more consistent production on the field this fall.

In 2019 during Jackson’s unanimous MVP winning campaign it was Andrews that was his top target in the passing game as both players enjoyed breakout second seasons. Had it not been for him missing two games in 2020 due to contracting COVID-19, he likely would’ve been the team leader in receiving yards and touchdowns for a second straight year since he only trailed Brown by 68 yards and one score in 14 games.

To shell out a large contract to one of the notable pending free agent wide receivers would be a gross misuse of the team’s precocious and limited cap space because they would never get the full value of their investment due to their low-volume passing game.

Justifying paying a premium pass-catcher upwards of $15 or even $20 million to play in an offense that runs twice as much as it passes is inconceivable and would be a detriment to the development of young wideouts like Brown, Devin Duvernay, James Proche, and whomever they inevitably draft in late April.

There is no such thing as a ‘true No. 1’ receiver in the Ravens offense under Roman in the traditional sense. The leading receiver could be a tight end some years and a natural receiver in others like in the past two seasons.

As far as what to expect from the Ravens’ top target in the passing game in a given year going forward, it is hard to project at the moment without knowing what impact Williams and Martin will have this year.

Andrews posted a career-high 852 yards receiving in 2019, and has the eighth-most touchdown catches over the last two years with 17. During that time he has had four multi-touchdown games.

Brown’s combined yardage isn’t gaudy over his first two years in the league but he has quietly recorded the 14th most receiving touchdowns in the league over that span with 15 despite not seeing nearly as many targets as the more revered pass-catchers ranked above and right below him on the list.

The Ravens might not ever have a wide receiver or tight end that regularly churns out 1,000 plus yards seasons while Jackson is under center until his athleticism starts to naturally tail off and he has to adjust his game accordingly.

An optimistic and completely realistic expectation of the Ravens’ top target in the passing game in a given year for the foreseeable future is to average anywhere between 65-75 receptions and 850-975 yards a year with the occasional 1,100-1,200 outlier season.