What Options Do Baltimore Ravens Have At WR1?

Photo: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

It’s offseason time, which means general manager quotes, which mean fanbase irritation. This week it’s Eric DeCosta, the largely successful GM of the Baltimore Ravens, who denied his fans any hope that the Ravens will pursue a WR1 this offseason.

“There are a lot of things we can do,” DeCosta said. “It's not all about getting the 'No. 1' receiver that everybody likes to talk about.” Uh-oh.

The Ravens have built their receiving corps with speed in mind. Since DeCosta took over as general manager, they’ve spent a first-round pick on Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (who never ran a 40-yard dash leading up to the NFL draft but is projected to clock 4.3 seconds); a third-round pick on Miles Boykin (who ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash); and a third-round pick on Devin Duvernay (who clocked a 4.39-second 40 prior to the 2020 draft). Don’t forget a third-round pick on Mark Andrews, whose 4.67-second 40-yard dash is 76th percentile for tight ends. They want to be a deep, vertical passing game—head coach John Harbaugh said as much during the last offseason—and that receiver speed helps them do that. At least, theoretically. 

Despite Baltimore’s offseason emphasis on deep passing, Jackson’s rate of deep passing attempts remained steady from 2019 to 2020 (13.7% to 13.8%), and his adjusted completion rate barely shifted as well (41.8% to 42.3%). The little stuff changed like four drops instead of just one and six touchdowns after 11 last year. There’s a lot that goes into that. Pass protection got a lot worse for the season after the loss of tackle Ronnie Stanley and guard Marshal Yanda. The Ravens’ pass block win rate dropped from 69% to 62% this season, and Jackson was accordingly pressured on 21.6% of his dropbacks—up from 16.2% in 2019. More pressure is particularly impactful for downfield passes, as those routes take a long time to develop, forcing Jackson to hold the ball for additional time in the pocket.

The Ravens want to play as a vertical passing game in part because they’re so confident in their running game. DeCosta called it “perhaps the best in history” when answering for the team’s lack of investment in top wide receivers, and at one point, he was right about that. The Ravens’ 2019 rushing attack was more effective than most passing offenses last season, and with that as the engine of their offense, they’d rather build a passing game for explosive gains than for steady, early-down, stick-moving games.

Unfortunately, the 2020 Ravens rushing attack was not so dominant, just as the deep passing game was less effective, and the entire offense suffered. With the investments made in the running game to this point, the instinct is to invest in the passing game; and with the league trending toward a pass-heavy approach, why wouldn’t the Ravens go that way?

If you believe DeCosta, it’s because the juice may not be worth the squeeze. If Baltimore adds a dominant WR1, it’ll be placing that receiver in an offense that runs the ball more on neutral downs than all but one offense in the league; that offense is the Tennessee Titans, who does have a WR1 in hand with A.J. Brown. The Titans were play-action heavy under former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, just like the Ravens, and liked to push the ball down the field—less on vertical routes and more on deep-breaking concepts. Brown’s talent isn’t really what matters here; what matters is the investment. The Titans knew they were a run-heavy team under Smith, so they retained a perceived first-round bust in Corey Davis and spent a second-round pick on a good system fit in Brown. That’s less than the Ravens have spent on pass-catching weapons over the last few seasons.

The Ravens need to get better at throwing the football, but they’ve spent a lot of capital on the wide receiver room recently. Yes, Andrews struggles with drops; Brown’s size is limiting, and he’s been up-and-down; Boykin has barely been a blip on the radar. Eventually, the coaching staff has to be able to develop those individual players and find more creative ways to open them up. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s passing game has been effete and unchanging over the past few years, and the Ravens have made no moves to add creative passing game designers to the staff. The offensive line has seen third-round picks at the earliest (in Orlando Brown, Tyre Phillips, and Ben Powers) and largely focused on people movers in the running game. They could go for some pass-protecting prospects.

Baltimore likely won’t attack the top of the WR market; Allen Robinson and Kenny Golladay might look great in purple, but I can’t imagine they’ll be wearing it. That’s not how the Ravens want to succeed. They won’t funnel that player enough targets to make him worth the money they’d spend to secure him. A second- or third-tier free agent will provide a boost, and maybe a late pick with jump-ball ability would stick around.

But the Ravens’ receiving corps is what it is. With how this team is constructed and wants to succeed, it’s on Roman and Jackson’s creativity and teamwork, DeCosta’s reconstruction of the offensive line, and the improvement of current young and cheap WRs to galvanize this passing game. This is the cost of their identity, and they’re gonna ride it out—even if it takes them to the ground.