Familiar skepticism remains at wide receiver as Ravens shut out early in free agency

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The admission came from Ravens head coach John Harbaugh at the NFL owners meetings two years ago.

Twenty-five regular-season wins, two playoff berths, and a league-record 6,367 rushing yards later, the words still ring true even in a depressed free-agent market at wide receiver, the position that continues to be a white whale for fans of an otherwise very successful and innovative organization. While the addition of veteran right guard Kevin Zeitler should be a substantial upgrade to the offensive line that shouldn’t be trivialized, we know that’s not the position most Ravens followers are discussing this time of year.

“You’re not going to be a certain type of receiver and want to come play in Baltimore,” Harbaugh acknowledged two offseasons ago. “We have not received phone calls from some guys. That’s OK. I don’t want to hear from those guys. We want rough guys. We want tough guys.”

Pittsburgh nemesis JuJu Smith-Schuster became the latest example of that persistent challenge on Friday, reportedly taking less money to return to the Steelers on a one-year deal after the Ravens tried to persuade the slot receiver with a slightly higher base salary plus incentives for 2021. You can debate the merits of Smith-Schuster choosing the familiarity of a pass-heavy attack and a fading Ben Roethlisberger over being the No. 3 option for Patrick Mahomes and the explosive Kansas City offense, but most wide receivers of consequence simply aren’t going to take a one-year pillow contract to play in Baltimore’s low-volume passing attack unless the money is considerably greater than competing offers.

That’s just business.

The harshest cynics try to portray such an outcome as a referendum on star quarterback Lamar Jackson, but others — such as former Raven Dez Bryant, for example — continue to suggest that the fault lies with offensive coordinator Greg Roman and his run-heavy system. The end result stings regardless.

Missing out on a one-year deal with Smith-Schuster isn’t the end of the world, but the final price tags for impactful outside receivers such as Corey Davis (three years, $37.5 million with the New York Jets) and Marvin Jones (two years, $12.5 million with Jacksonville) were considerably lower than many projected before the start of free agency. General manager Eric DeCosta “overpaying” — relatively speaking in the current market — for such an option on a multiyear deal could have been structured to minimize the short-term consequence on the lower 2021 salary cap and to anticipate future increases as the league announced its new television contracts last week. This is when it becomes difficult to determine how much of the problem is the style of the offense compared to the organization’s willingness to invest real free-agent dollars at the position with the latter being perceived as an issue long before Jackson became the man in Baltimore.

That the Ravens haven’t taken advantage of a buyer-friendly market for wide receivers makes one wonder if free agency will be a meaningful channel for improvement at the position anytime soon, especially as a highly lucrative contract extension for Jackson looms. Though Smith-Schuster didn’t fit the description of the outside target able to beat man coverage for which many are clamoring, he still represented a significant talent upgrade as the Ravens try to improve a passing offense that ranked 18th in yards per attempt, 17th in Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric, and last in yards per game in 2020.

As the free-agent options dwindle — the likes of T.Y. Hilton and Sammy Watkins were still available as of Monday afternoon — more attention will shift toward the prospects of a trade. Acquiring Chicago wide receiver Allen Robinson and his $17.88 million franchise tag may not be realistic, but Dallas wideout Michael Gallup is entering the final year of his rookie contract and isn’t expected to remain with the Cowboys even if he plays out a final season there. The problem is DeCosta — who always desires as many draft picks as possible — having just seven selections in next month’s draft, which brings us to the increasingly likely attempt at a solution for 2021. 

As much as critics want to deliver jabs — this writer has thrown his share over the years — at Baltimore’s wide receiver shortcomings, DeCosta has shown a greater commitment to taking draft swings at the position in his brief time as general manager. After taking just two wide receivers (Torrey Smith and Breshad Perriman) in the first three rounds from 2008-2018, the Ravens have selected three over the last two years in Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, and Devin Duvernay. That alone doesn’t solve the problem without those picks ultimately succeeding, but it’s indisputable evidence of trying to get better at the position. And it’s likely a byproduct of Harbaugh’s assessment from two years ago.

If the Ravens aren’t willing to pay more for an established wide receiver to join their run-heavy offense — and the current market supports that position more than ever — they have no other choice but to draft and develop their own or to hope the perfect trade falls into their lap every few years. Of course, such a strategy isn’t going to immediately appease fans having a right to carry more than a little healthy skepticism regarding the position.

Perception remains reality until DeCosta and the Ravens change the old narrative. In the offseason, you can always talk yourself into staying true to a certain price tag, pointing to a free agent’s reluctance to play in Baltimore’s unique offense, and even drafting more receivers. They’re all fair points to varying degrees, and you don’t hang banners for “winning” the first week of free agency.

But none of that will mean much if the Ravens are once again left wanting at the position come January.