The Baltimore Ravens used the first week of free agency to make a much-needed upgrade to their receiver corps, signing former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith to a three-year, $11.5 million contract.
However, Smith turns 35 years old in May, and despite the three-year length of his contract with the Ravens, he may not be on the team that long. While there's nothing wrong with bringing on the veteran Smith to be a stopgap at starting wideout, the Ravens must start succeeding at drafting well at the position.
Since the Ravens drafted starting quarterback Joe Flacco in 2008, they have selected seven wide receivers.
Only two, 2011 second-round pick Torrey Smith and 2013 seventh-round pick Aaron Mellette, remain on the roster, with the latter seeing no playing time in his rookie season. The latest to leave was free agent Tandon Doss, who joined the Jacksonville Jaguars earlier in the week.
|2008||Marcus Smith||Round 4|
|2008||Justin Harper||Round 7|
|2010||David Reed||Round 5|
|2011||Torrey Smith*||Round 2|
|2011||Tandon Doss||Round 4|
|2012||Tommy Streeter||Round 6|
|2013||Aaron Mellette*||Round 7|
(*) denotes still on the team.
In 2013, the Ravens primary receiving corps was made up of Torrey Smith, undrafted rookie Marlon Brown and veteran receiver and returner, Jacoby Jones. Tight end Dennis Pitta, a preferred target of Flacco's, missed much of the season with a hip injury, which forced the team to get creative.
The Ravens brought on veteran tight end Dallas Clark and used fellow tight end Ed Dickson more in the passing game. However, both players are currently unrestricted free agents and the Ravens aren't likely to bring them back.
Though Pitta shouldn't have any issue with his hip this year—allowing him to be a big part of the passing game as he was supposed to be in 2013—the Ravens are still thin when it comes to young, reliable playmakers.
Though Brown showed promising signs of development in 2013, catching 49 of 81 passes thrown his way, for 524 yards and a team-leading seven touchdowns, the Ravens need to increase their ranks of reliable receivers.
Flacco isn't the type of quarterback who makes his receivers better; rather, his game needs good receivers to be at its finest.
Steve Smith should provide a boost to Flacco this year, but the Ravens need to make receiver a priority in the upcoming draft. Though Baltimore isn't lacking in needs—offensive line is a major one, as is tight end, the secondary and running back—receiver cannot be pushed down the list, despite such a deep class at the position.
Torrey Smith is the team's best complement to Flacco's big arm. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Flacco threw 88 passes of 20 or more yards in 2013, the most in the league. Unsurprisingly, 41 of those were thrown to Torrey Smith, who was targeted deep more than any receiver.
However, he's not reliable. Torrey Smith caught less than 50 percent of the passes thrown to him last year—65 catches in 139 targets—and has a career catch percentage of just 47.7. Because Torrey Smith is a deep-threat, home run hitter, he's thought to be the team's No. 1 wideout. But the numbers simply show a different picture.
The Ravens need a young receiver—or two—who can work the entire field, run accurate routes and catch far more than 47 percent of the passes thrown his way. Pitta can fill this role, but better yet would be multiple receiving targets on the field whom Flacco can trust.
There's no guarantee that Brown will develop into that player. There's little reason to lean all the passing-game's hopes on players like Steve Smith and Jones, who are inching closer to the ends of their respective careers.
The other receivers on the roster—Mellette, Kamar Aiken, Gerrard Sheppard, Deonte Thompson—are relative unknowns. Torrey Smith will be a free agent in 2015, and the Ravens may have to make a difficult decision about his future in Baltimore because, for all the plays he's made, he's left twice as many on the field.
The 2014 draft must provide the answer.
Because offensive line should (rightfully) be the Ravens' first-round priority, receiver will likely have to wait until Round 2 or later. The second round, however, might bear the team the most fruit, in terms of their options to find someone who can contribute heavily in his rookie season and evolve into a full-time starter in 2015 and beyond.
The name that jumps off the page first is LSU's Jarvis Landry, whom the Ravens met with at the scouting combine in February.
Landry has 77 receptions for 1,193 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013, with 453 of those yards and six of the scores coming on third downs. Landry has good hands and is by all accounts as tough as it gets, with an enthusiastic willingness to make contested catches in the middle of the field, to block defenders and to play special teams.
Allen Robinson from Penn State could also prove to be an asset for the Ravens. He played in a pro-style offense in college and had 97 receptions for 1,432 yards and six scores in 2013. Though there are some questions about his speed, his route-running ability could trump the Ravens' desires to have another extra-fast receiver to pair with Torrey Smith.
Though also less fast than the ideal receiver, Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews has many traits the Ravens need to add to their roster. As Bleacher Report's BJ Kissel points out, he has both a high ceiling and a high floor—a rare combination of exceptional upside that should intrigue a receiver-needy team like the Ravens.
Matthews caught 112 passes for 1,477 yards and seven scores in 2013, all while running sharp routes and showing off his reliable hands. Because the Ravens already have high-speed receivers on the roster, adding a relatively slower player like Matthews or Robinson could pay off well in the intermediate parts of the field, where strong route-running, a high catch percentage and physical play can trump speed.
The Ravens are approaching a critical point in the development of their passing offense. Flacco received a high-paying contract in 2013 after leading the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory, but it's clear that he'll need a quality group of receiving targets to live up to the money.
The Ravens have been more miss than hit when it comes to drafting receivers and have had to rely on veteran free agents to round out their starting rotation. However, that's not a sustainable strategy. Teams must be able to identify young players and develop them into true starters.
Though the Ravens have failed at this task in the past, the embarrassment of riches that is this year's rookie receiver class gives them an opportunity at redemption.
The Ravens must find a receiver who can contribute quickly and become a long-term fixture of their passing game. The future of Baltimore's offense depends on it.