BALTIMORE — After the trade that returned the Ravens’ wide receiver group to that oh-so-familiar offseason zone — more potential than production, more questions than answers — Eric DeCosta couldn’t resist a joke. The Ravens general manager had just traded Marquise “Hollywood” Brown for the first-round pick that became center Tyler Linderbaum. He was asked: Did the deal leave the team thin at wide receiver?
“I was thinking about that, and I kind of missed all the questions this year,” DeCosta said last month. “I was thinking, ‘I kind of want to get back to the days of old,’ you know?”
In the three weeks since, the Ravens haven’t done anything at wide receiver but sign a handful of undrafted free agents and tout their young group. DeCosta said the team expects a “big, big jump this year” from 2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman. He called Devin Duvernay a “great young player.” There was praise for James Proche II and Tylan Wallace. There were reminders that the team already has All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews.
The wait for immediate help, however, goes on. Former Cleveland Browns standout Jarvis Landry, who’d been linked to the Ravens in free agency, on Friday signed a one-year deal with the New Orleans Saints worth up to $6 million. The few impact wide receivers who remain have red flags: lingering injuries, durability concerns, diminished production. The Ravens, with limited salary cap space, continue to look for the right player at the right price.
“We like our receivers, we do,” DeCosta said after the draft. “We’ve seen growth, we’ve seen our guys mature and develop. ... We will add players to the mix. We’re doing that right now, and we’ll look at veteran players as well. It wasn’t really by design that we wanted to create a hole on the team. I don’t look at it that way, but in this business, you pivot, you dodge, you weave — you’re always really going to be chasing a need. Every team in the league would tell you that you’re chasing needs.”
And what do the Ravens need? That depends on what they think they have — and on what they think they can still get.
In early February, long before the Ravens signed right tackle Morgan Moses, traded away Brown and drafted Linderbaum, DeCosta made clear the offense’s identity. “We’re a running team,” he said at his season-ending news conference.
Not like anything’s changed there. The Ravens led the NFL in carries in Greg Roman’s first two years as offensive coordinator; last season, weakened by a poor defense as well as injuries to quarterback Lamar Jackson, they finished third. The team’s run-first philosophy trickles down to its receivers. Coaches value strong run blockers, not only in the trenches but also out wide.
“Everyone wants to win, but most people want to win on their own terms,” Harbaugh said near the end of the Ravens’ breakthrough 2018 season, when targets were scarce for top wide receivers John Brown, Willie Snead IV and Michael Crabtree. “These guys have put away their own terms a little bit — a lot, probably. They’re blocking. Hey, we’re motioning across and cutting off back-side defensive ends with our wide receivers, and those guys are doing it. That’s a tough duty, but they’ve embraced it.”
In 2022, that could be a mandate for the position. The Ravens’ investment in tight ends and fullbacks — veterans Nick Boyle, Patrick Ricard and Andrews and rookies Charlie Kolar and Isaiah Likely, if healthy, are all likely to make the 53-man roster — should give Roman the flexibility to use more two- and three-tight-end groupings next season. That would mean fewer snaps for the Ravens’ wide receivers.
Improved run blocking would help their cause. For all that Brown brought to the Ravens’ passing offense, he offered little in the run game. According to a review of the Ravens’ 38 designed runs that went for 20-plus yards over the past two seasons, Brown was involved as a play-side blocker only a handful of times — partly because of how often he lined up out wide, far from the action. But when the Ravens ran reverses, for instance, it was typically to Miles Boykin’s side. And in the slot, where Brown also saw time, Duvernay was far more effective at sealing off second-level defenders.
Those kinds of limitations and tendencies can make an offense more predictable. With Boykin released and Sammy Watkins not re-signed, the Ravens will likely have to make do with a less imposing group of wideouts. The 6-foot-1 Bateman is the tallest of the team’s likely contributors, but he had the worst run-blocking grade of any Ravens wide receiver last year, according to Pro Football Focus. Duvernay and Proche both graded out below backup levels. Wallace had the NFL’s best mark, but on a small sample size: He had just 26 run-blocking snaps, nine fewer than Proche.
With the versatile Landry unavailable, the free-agent class of receivers lacks reliable run blockers. Former Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans wideout Julio Jones has a solid track record and good size at 6-3, but injuries have limited him to 19 games over the past two years.
The Ravens lost more than just their most productive wide receiver when they traded away Brown. They also lost their only proven deep threat at the position.
According to Sports Info Solutions, only seven NFL wide receivers last season were targeted on more passes of at least 20 air yards than Brown (28). In 2020 (25 targets), there were only five. Brown led the Ravens with 464 receiving yards on deep throws over the past two years, even if his overall efficiency (13 catches on 53 targets) was lacking.
In Andrews, the Ravens still have maybe the league’s best field-stretching tight end. Targeted 19 times on throws of at least 20 yards downfield last season — by far the most among NFL tight ends — he caught eight for 246 yards. But the drop-off after Brown and Andrews is staggering.
Bateman, who has good speed (4.43-second 40-yard dash), if not game-breaking speed, had four catches on eight deep throws for 131 yards in his injury-shortened rookie season. Duvernay and Proche each recorded just one catch of at least 20 yards over their first two seasons in Baltimore, with Duvernay seeing four such targets and Proche two. Wallace didn’t get a downfield shot in 2021.
The Ravens’ play-action game will give Jackson big-play opportunities, but he’ll need another home run threat. It could be Bateman, who, as a sophomore at Minnesota, finished eighth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards per catch (20.3). It could be Wallace, who feasted on jump-ball opportunities at Oklahoma State. It could be Duvernay, already one of the NFL’s best returners and one of the team’s fastest players. It could be a mix of all three, Proche and the rookie tight ends.
It could also be Will Fuller V. The 2016 first-round pick averaged a career-high 16.6 yards per catch in 2020, when he finished with 879 yards in just 11 games for the Houston Texans. But injuries remain a concern; the speedster broke his thumb in Week 4 last season and finished his lone year with the Miami Dolphins with just four catches for 26 yards. In February, he shared on his Instagram a photo of his left hand, wrapped in a bandage, with an apparent splint on his left middle finger. “Dang finger man,” Fuller wrote in the caption of the since-deleted photo.
The Ravens aren’t rigid in their wide receiver roles. Wideouts are expected to move around from spot to spot. Flexibility on offense is as important as it is on defense. “I don’t think we really have a ‘slot’ player or an ‘outside’ player,” Harbaugh said after the Ravens drafted Duvernay and Proche in 2020.
That’s not to say their receiver usage is random. Every formation and personnel grouping has its purpose. But with Brown out of the picture, the Ravens will have to sort out their receiver rotation not only inside but outside as well.
According to SIS, Brown trailed only Andrews in routes run from the slot last year (332). Duvernay was second (216), followed by Proche (141), Bateman (112) and Wallace (31). Brown saw less time as an outside receiver (263 routes run), but still only Bateman (273) lined up there more often. Among the Ravens’ returning receivers, only Duvernay (121) earned regular snaps outside.
Bateman, who was most productive at Minnesota in outside alignments, will likely feature as the Ravens’ top option there. But who will be his running mate on the other side? Duvernay has been more efficient when lined up in the slot, though he could grow into an outside role with more experience. Wallace, who lined up almost exclusively as an outside receiver at Oklahoma State, saw more time inside during training camp and in games. And Proche, the smallest of the Ravens’ top wide receivers, has lined up almost exclusively in the slot.
It’s not a question that demands an answer. The Ravens used at least three wideouts on over half their plays last season, but they won’t line up with two wide receivers outside the numbers on every play. They can flex out Andrews or a running back in obvious passing downs. They might rely more on bunch formations, which reduce the splits of their receivers.
Or they might just acquire another starting-level wide receiver anyway. They have four months to figure these things out.©2022 Baltimore Sun. Visit baltimoresun.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.