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A Dichotomy of Dissonance: Perception vs. Reality in the Ravens history of drafting wide receivers

Examining a sordid history

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We all saw the video, and we’ve all heard the reports. Ravens wide receiver Rashod Bateman, the team’s top pick in 2021 and their number one wideout of the very-near-future, crumpled on the ground in an injured heap after gingerly taking a few steps to feel out an apparent injury. If you haven’t, here it is:

It was later reported to be a groin injury per John Harbaugh, and speculation has since raged that he could miss anywhere from 2-6 weeks, a timeline that potentially includes the start of the regular season. Words such as “bust,” and and variations on the name “Breshad Perriman” were bandied about on Twitter by a small but very vocal contingent of fans who are very deeply scarred by all they’ve seen with this team and it’s history at the wide receiver position. Neither the former term, nor the latter comparison are fair in this case at all in my opinion, but some reasoned skepticism is understandable given all that we’ve seen in regards to said history.

But I’ve had a thought percolating in my mind recently, one that was brought to the forefront in the wake of Bateman’s injury and the subsequent hurricane of negativity that flooded the Ravens-sympathetic interwebs in the last 24 hours or so as a result of it. The thought (which I think I’ve articulated at certain points in the past but not fully expounded upon) boils down to this: When it comes to the Ravens history of drafting wide receivers, there’s an old testament, and a new testament, and the clear line of demarcation between the two epochs can be found just a few years back. That would of course be the beginning of the 2019 offseason when Eric DeCosta took over as Baltimore’s general manager full time.

Baltimore Ravens Training Camp
The presumed savior of the Ravens struggles at wideout, Bateman’s injury was a deflating moment in a (relatively) otherwise uneventful camp.
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

A big part of these recent events prompting to me to return to this thought is seeing names such as Breshad Perriman (and even older ones like Mark Clayton and Travis Taylor) thrown around in conversation with a name like Rashod Bateman. This isn’t entirely logical, but neither is the experience of being a fan - I know that just as well as anyone else since I, as a fan, sometimes allow emotion to rule the day when it comes to my thoughts on the team. I do however like to think I can put this aside most of the time when the situation calls for some level-headed analysis, and this is especially required at a time of year like training camp (an entire #SillySzn all to itself).

There are few things that interest me less than discussing another human being’s groin, but on the topic of Bateman, he’s expected to be sidelined for 2-6 weeks depending upon the severity of injury he’s suffered to his. With that, enter the above names (Perriman, Clayton, and Taylor) into a conversation they don’t really belong in, but are being inserted to because along with Bateman and Marquise Brown, they’re the other three names in a list of five wideouts that Baltimore has selected in the first round of the draft in 26 years of operation. And it’s because three of those four names are looked at (sometimes a bit too harshly) as busts, and also because many of the Ravens other cracks at the position in the draft haven’t hit very often either, that many fans have begun to lament the fact that franchise is simply “cursed” at this position.

Again, I’d like to reiterate I understand the skepticism surrounding this position as it’s only natural at this point. But from a logical perspective there’s reason to believe that was never the case in the first place, and especially won’t be moving forward. To dissect that, lets return to the “old vs. new testament” argument.

Ozzie Newsome is without question one of the best GMs in the history of the game, but there’s also no question he had his difficulties when it came to drafting wideouts. While his record doing so is poor possibly due to difficulty evaluating the position, there’s a more glaring issue on Ozzie’s record when it comes to this position that isn’t talked about enough when people offer up anything from the most hard hitting analysis you’ll find to something more simply, a-la “the Ravens are cursed:” He just simply didn’t draft enough over the course of his career.

A spreadsheet detailing the Ravens draft history; Ozzie Newsome’s tenure is color coded to the criteria on the right

In the above graphic, you see the Ravens’ history with drafting wide receivers, from 1996, all the way up until today. Ozzie Newsome’s tenure is color coded to the criteria you see listed, with green representing a “decent to good” pick, orange for “below average to decent,” and red representing a bad pick; the years in which the team didn’t draft one (something that became less and less acceptable the further into Ozzie’s tenure we got) are blacked out on the grid. When you take a look at the first three days of the draft, hopefully you’ll start to get what I mean when I talk about an old vs. new testament.

Yes, it’s true Ozzie picked plenty of ineffective wideouts, but there’s also a glaring lack of picks made on Days 1 and 2 (or, the first three rounds of the draft) in his 23 years on the job. By my count, he only picked seven receivers within this range, not even a third of the 26 total that he picked as Baltimore’s top decision maker. Compared to the Pittsburgh Steelers (the league’s consensus gold standard for drafting at this position) that’s a paltry number - from 1996 to 2018, they selected 15 receivers in the first three rounds of the draft (more than double Baltimore), and that’s a 15 that doesn’t even include Antonio Brown, a 2010 sixth rounder who’s likely going to the Hall of Fame some day (they’ve also selected two over this period in the last three years).

Baltimore Ravens Rookie Camp
For as great as he was, one of Ozzie Newsome’s calling cards was a difficulty with drafting and developing wide receivers.
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

This isn’t to say that wide receivers picked from rounds four through seven can’t hit, but for very obvious reasons, it’s going to be harder for them to do so than those of higher pedigree. To further illustrate this point, the only two of any real note that Newsome picked on Day 3 are probably Jermaine Lewis (mainly because of his contributions as a return specialist), and Brandon Stokley (who didn’t even become much of a productive player until after he left Baltimore). Both of those players were drafted in the 1990’s.

None of this is meant as an unnecessary shot at Ozzie, who’s sterling reputation as an executive precedes him. In fact, this might serve as an argument to disquiet criticisms about his ability evaluate wide receivers as there just isn’t big enough of a sample size.... well, maybe I wouldn’t go quite that contrarian, but you get my meaning. Saying the Ravens can’t draft wide receivers based upon Ozzie’s tenure is akin to saying a baseball player who went 1 for 6 in a game with a double and five strikeouts, four of them looking, can’t hit - that might be the case, but we’re talking about a small sample size in which he refused to pull the trigger at the plate.

If any fans, analysts, or whoever else would like to point to players such as Demetrius Williams, David Reed, Tandon Doss, Tommy Streeter, et. al as reasons for their skepticism with the Ravens poor track record at receiver, they can go to it. I do however think it’s a reasonable question to ask if A) that’s too much weight to put onto a Day 3 pick, and B) if said weight is only being placed due to the fact that fans have (or, had) no other choice. Why? Because seven draft picks on Days 1 and 2 in 23 years was never going to get it done in the first place, and as a result of Newsome’s reticence to pick early at this position, Ravens fans subsequently latched onto whatever picks they could at receiver as (quote unquote) the next big thing.

What you wind up with is a conflation of two different issues, both of which have plagued Baltimore, but are actually not necessarily related. The first is a lack of legitimate investment at receiver, and the second is a lack of success in investments at the position on the rare occasion they were made. These issues compounded upon each other as the years went on, but it seems logical that if the first issue had been addressed, the second likely would’ve followed suit to some extent.

San Diego Chargers v Baltimore Ravens
Had Ozzie made more significant investments at wideout (particularly near the end of his tenure), it’s likely that he would’ve had more hits, a-la Torrey Smith in Round 2.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Ozzie was able to mitigate this flaw in draft strategy with an at times equally crafty approach to the free agency and trading pools. As the 2000’s wore on, and passing became more and more of a necessity, players such as Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Smith Sr. were brought in via free agency and trade as low-cost, low-risk options to stand in for the more volatile prospect of drafting and developing players. This tenet of the Ravens old testament worked very well at times, but as passing the ball became more and more of a premium in the 2010’s, Ozzie’s unwillingness (and at times inability) to inject young thoroughbreds into his wide receiver room caught up to him.

But, we already know all of that. So, what about this “new testament?” The one we’re currently seeing be written under Eric DeCosta and co.?

Well, it’s certainly a mixed bag, but the one thing we do know so far is that any further discussions about a “curse” (or further use of the word “can’t”) seemingly won’t be for a lack of the Ravens trying. In his first three years on the job, DeCosta has picked four wide receivers on Days 1 and 2 of the Draft, just three shy of Ozzie’s entire catalog in this regard. Additionally, he picked James Proche in the sixth in 2020 (who’s looking like a lock to produce for the team this season), and Tylan Wallace in the fourth this past year, a player who was looked at by many as great value by that point.

Of his early picks, Marquise Brown (though at times fairly maligned on and off the field) seems to be trending towards a hit as a late first round player, Miles Boykin is a rotational blocking receiver who can likely be counted as a miss at this point, Devin Duvernay is an optimistic wait-and-see with an expanded role in the offing for 2020, with this discussion finally bringing us back to Rashod Bateman. I’m not going to rehash all the superlatives surrounding the Ravens first round receiver because there are many, and you’ve heard them all. All I’d ask is you A) remember them in a time of frustration with his injury, and B) not give in to a negative self-fulfilling prophecy about him being yet another failure in a long line dating back 26 years.

DeCosta’s resume is a short one, but so far he’s shown much more of a willingness to invest at wideout in the draft, and already seems to be on a better track than Newsome ever was in terms of an eye for the position. Time will tell to what extent EDC has a better gauge on the position, but one thing that will help him is continued swings at the plate. More swings = more chances at a hit, something that’s already bearing itself out in Baltimore as we speak.

While Bateman’s injury is an unfortunate development, we shouldn’t allow the past to influence our opinions, or color our previously positive analysis of him a shade darker. All we should do is hope that he comes back stronger, and serves as an example that this franchise can reverse the narrative that it doesn’t know how to evaluate receiving talent. Time will tell if this is a realistic expectation, but in the meantime, check your priors, look to the future, and enjoy the preseason while we wait for Bateman’s return; after a long, at times rocky offseason, football is finally back.