From left to right, Clemson's Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M's… (Wire photos )
The Ravens know they need another wide receiver and they already know the exact type of playmaker they covet, not that they wanted to go into specifics with the Baltimore media during last week's season-ending news conference.
But general manager Ozzie Newsome did offer one hint as to what the Ravens might be looking for, which should have been obvious to anyone who watched their offense stall throughout the disappointing 2013 season.
"We need to be able to get a receiver — whether it's a tight end or a wide receiver — that can make a third-and-7, third-and-8 catch and run after the catch," Newsome said.
The Ravens had that receiver last year, but they traded Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers last March. They expected tight end Dennis Pitta to replace some of his production, but when Pitta hurt his hip in training camp, the void left by Boldin became glaring.
Now, after a season in which quarterback Joe Flacco struggled to get in sync with a mostly inexperienced group of wide receivers while throwing a career-high 22 interceptions, the Ravens say adding another wide receiver is one of their top offseason priorities.
"I think we've identified the type of receiver that we want," Newsome said, glancing over at coach John Harbaugh, who was seated to his left. "And when John told me [the type of receiver he wanted], I lit up, because I was right there with him as to what we're looking for in a receiver this year. And I think before the 2014 season ends, we will have that guy on our football team."
There is a reason why Newsome seemed so confident. Matt Miller, the lead NFL draft writer for Bleacher Report, said the group of wide receivers in this year's draft is deep and talented.
He believes Clemson's Sammy Watkins, who many are projecting to be a top-10 pick, is a "can't-miss prospect" and he expects Texas A&M's Mike Evans and USC's Marqise Lee to come off the board in the middle of the first round. He said there is a group of six or seven "really talented" wide receivers who could be selected late in the first round or in the second.
"With so many underclassmen — [19 as of Sunday evening] — entering at the position, there's an amazing amount of talent and upside available," Miller said.
The Ravens will have either the 16th or 17th overall pick in May's draft depending on the outcome of a coin flip with the Dallas Cowboys at the scouting combine.
Miller projected one of those underclassmen, Evans, to the Ravens at that pick in his latest mock draft.
"He's very much like Boldin in that he can essentially box-out and position himself like a tight end and give them the tough yards over the middle they're lacking," Miller said.
After Boldin was shipped to San Francisco, third-year wide receiver Torrey Smith, who led the team with 1,128 receiving yards became the closest thing to a consistent receiving threat, but the Ravens used him on the perimeter on the majority of his snaps.
Undrafted rookie Marlon Brown led the Ravens with seven touchdowns but did not make a major impact outside of the red zone. Jacoby Jones, a pending free agent, was often a non-factor, too. And youngsters Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson, who competed in the preseason to replace Boldin in the slot, did not come close to meeting the hype from the coaching staff.
The offense lacked a precise route-runner who could gain yards after the catch. Smith was the only Ravens wide receiver who ranked in the top 40 at the position in yards after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus.
"Making plays after the catch is a specialty in this class," Miller said, mentioning players such as Lee, LSU's Odell Beckham and Penn State's Allen Robinson. "Throughout the first three rounds there figures to be plenty of talent available to fit those needs."
Drafting wide receivers is one thing. Developing them is another. And despite hitting on Smith in 2011, the Ravens don't have a good track record. They have drafted 20 wide receivers since 1996. Smith just became the first to top 1,000 receiving yards in a season with the Ravens.
"You can draft a Torrey Smith in the second round, and you can have some success, and you can draft Travis Taylor in the first, and you can blow it. The wide receiver position in the draft, there are a lot of hits and misses," Newsome said. "And what we've tried to do is identify guys that have certain traits that can come in, and I think we've got a real, real good receivers coach in Jim Hostler who helps develop [them]."
If the Ravens choose to go with a proven but more costly commodity in free agency, there are some intriguing options there, too.
Soon-to-be free agent Julian Edelman, who topped 100 catches and 1,000 receiving yards for the New England Patriots this season, is a polished route-runner who has a knack for making plays after the catch, something the Ravens saw firsthand when the Patriots beat them in Week 16.
Eric Decker of the Denver Broncos and Boldin are two other potential free agents who gained a sizable chunk of their yards as slot receivers. Hakeem Nicks of the New York Giants, Jeremy Maclin of the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay's James Jones are also among a productive group of NFL wide receivers slated to become free agents.
Whether it is through free agency, the draft or a trade, Newsome believes the Ravens will be able to find the kind of wide receiver they are looking for.
"There is no reason that he might not be here at the beginning of the season," Newsome said. "But I always try to leave myself a little leeway to give us a chance to get it right."
Harbaugh chimed in, saying, "I'm going to put a little pressure on Ozzie to get that going a little bit before the first game, if possible."
"We've identified it, and that's the first step," Newsome replied.