The Ravens are in first place and the favorite to win the AFC North, something that was true at the beginning of the week and remains accurate today.
They have been one of the NFL’s model organizations for more than two decades.
But Thursday’s news of Rashod Bateman undergoing season-ending foot surgery magnifies a hard truth that can only be explained by the organization or excused by its most forgiving supporters so many times before frustration again sets in.
The Ravens continue to have a wide receiver problem.
We’ll refrain from dwelling on previous years of evidence in this space — we all know the story — to instead focus on 2022, the fifth and final year superstar quarterback Lamar Jackson comes at a substantial discount compared to market value or the price of the franchise tag.
Ironically, the Ravens concluded the 2021 campaign in better shape at the position than they’d been in a long time with a pair of talented first-round picks to go along with All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews. General manager Eric DeCosta appeared to share that sentiment at his season-ending press conference in early February.
“I’m very comfortable where we are at the receiver position,” DeCosta said. “I think people saw last year a lot of growth at that position. We had a nice mix of younger players who continued to improve throughout the year. We’ll look at ways of augmenting that position group, but I would not expect any significant additions at this time.
“That can always change, but at this time, I think we’re very comfortable with where we are with that group.”
Of course, what we didn’t know at the time was that No. 1 wide receiver Marquise Brown, coming off just the 14th 1,000-yard receiving season in franchise history, wanted out of Baltimore. To his credit, DeCosta fetched excellent value for the 2019 first-round pick who had only one more year of inexpensive team control, trading him and a third-round pick to Arizona for a first-round choice that turned into first-round center Tyler Linderbaum and fourth-round punter Jordan Stout.
But the Ravens never replaced Brown. Not in the first, second, or third wave of free agency at a time when they already knew they’d be trading him. Not in a draft in which they made a total of 11 selections. Not with a trade. They didn’t make a veteran addition at the position until signing Demarcus Robinson — who had been a first-wave cut of Las Vegas — in late August.
Yes, they were apparently all in on Bateman, their 2021 first-round pick who had flashed plenty of upside despite undergoing a groin surgery that cost him five games and not getting to play all that much with an injured Jackson late in his rookie season. The plan appeared to be working over the first three weeks of the new campaign with Bateman registering 226 receiving yards — a pace for well over 1,200 over a full season — and two touchdowns and the Ravens ranking first in passing efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. The early success wasn’t all because of the second-year receiver by any means, but defenses needed to account for his explosiveness and after-the-catch ability.
Then, Bateman suffered a Lisfranc injury in his left foot in a rainy Week 4 loss to Buffalo. Baltimore is 23rd in passing efficiency since then, a ranking buoyed by the second-half comeback against Tampa Bay last week. The Ravens can no longer point to his big-play ability or No. 1 potential as reason for optimism the rest of the way.
Knowing Bateman electing to undergo season-ending surgery was a distinct possibility before Tuesday’s trade deadline, DeCosta and the Ravens still didn’t acquire a wide receiver.
The cost always seems too great or the right guy never available at the position. Claims that the Ravens don’t need a true No. 1 ring hollow when a team seeing itself as a serious contender is now down to a bunch of No. 3 and 4 options. And if the position just isn’t that important to Greg Roman’s offense or Jackson simply wants to throw to tight ends as some like to suggest, why did the Ravens waste two first-round picks on wide receivers over the last four years?
It’s fine to want to work Day 2 and 3 wide receivers into the mix — 2020 third-round pick Devin Duvernay has been a nice success story who is now the de facto No. 1 — but that only makes sense to a point at a position with an underwhelming track record of development. In contrast, no one argued the last couple offseasons that Baltimore should forgo adding established help at edge rusher — another position where the organization’s approach has been scrutinized — to unconditionally hand snaps to the likes of Daelin Hayes or Jaylon Ferguson before his tragic death.
To be clear, navigating the rest of the regular season shouldn’t be the problem with a favorable schedule on paper and a bit of cushion in the AFC North, but this is a team needing to take the next step in January. That goal very likely requires throwing the ball at the highest level against the AFC’s heavyweights at some point. We’ve seen how that’s worked out in recent postseason trips, and that was even with Brown being the Ravens’ best receiver.
The passing game we’ve seen over the last month isn’t going to cut it for a deep January run.
Maybe the Ravens found something with the breakout performance of rookie tight end Isaiah Likely against Tampa Bay. If Andrews and he can form a one-two punch reminiscent of what New England had with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez a decade ago, the concern at wide receiver can be minimized.
The 35-year-old DeSean Jackson can offer speed on the outside if he manages to stay healthy, something he’s often struggled to do later in his career. To be fair, Jackson didn’t miss a single game because of injury a year ago, but he played more than 25 snaps in a game only three times.
Perhaps the deadline addition of inside linebacker Roquan Smith will have a Ray Lewis-like impact on what’s been a middling defense to this point and turn it into one of the NFL’s best, the kind of unit that can slow down Buffalo, Kansas City, and Miami in January and allow Baltimore to lean into its ground game harder than ever.
Who knows? Maybe the Ravens will surprise everyone and sign Odell Beckham Jr. for the stretch run.
If none — or very little — of that happens, we’ll again be left to talk about wide receiver in an offseason in which the Ravens must address the future of their franchise quarterback one way or another. Jackson said all the right things about his wide receivers after Thursday’s practice, but it’s now tough to forget his reaction to Brown being traded back in the spring.
The Ravens’ approach of trying to do just enough to get by at wide receiver isn’t new, and Bateman’s injury is the latest example of it biting them.