Boldin’s void still lingers as Ravens move closer to draft

April 15, 2013 | Luke Jones

Boldin’s void still lingers as Ravens move closer to draft

If you’re reading this, congratulations on making it through the difficult part of the Ravens’ offseason.

Needless to say, it’s been an interesting five weeks as a number of key contributors to the Super Bowl XLVII championship team have departed with several newcomers arriving to fill those voids. And once again, general manager Ozzie Newsome has emerged to look as shrewd as ever just a few weeks after many fans and media alike questioned what exactly the Ravens were trying to accomplish by gutting their roster after winning their second NFL title in 13 years.

It was painful waving goodbye to the legendary Ed Reed as well as other defensive contributors such as Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Bernard Pollard, and Cary Williams, but Newsome has walked away from free agency with an elite pass rusher (Elvis Dumervil), good defensive line depth (Chris Canty and Marcus Spears), a solid replacement for Reed (Michael Huff), and a low-risk, high-reward inside linebacker just three years removed from being a first-round pick (Rolando McClain). Though far from a guarantee, the argument can be made that a flawed Baltimore defense last year will emerge even stronger with the wholesale changes made this offseason.

With the Ravens now less than two weeks away from the draft, one position and one particular departure stands above all others in terms of the urgency felt to address it.

No, it isn’t left tackle, where the Ravens see veteran Bryant McKinnie dangling on the free-agent market while looking internally to find — yes — Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele as potential candidates to man the blindside for quarterback Joe Flacco. The mere suggestion of Oher moving back to the left side — not a decision I endorse, mind you — is enough to keep many fans awake at night, but the Ravens aren’t nearly as concerned about the position as everyone else, even though they’ll keep their eyes open during next week’s draft for a long-term solution.

For all the encouraging moves made by the Ravens in response to the mass exodus that occurred in mid-March, it’s still difficult to move past the trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers for a sixth-round pick. There’s no need to rehash the details; the Ravens made it clear they didn’t believe Boldin was a $6 million player anymore and the 32-year-old wasn’t willing to take a $2 million pay cut.

It was a business decision that cleared enough cap space to make the signing of the Pro Bowl pass rusher Dumervil and several others first conceivable and eventually a reality, but that still doesn’t replace the production left behind by the veteran receiver. Over the last two seasons, Boldin accounted for 23.7 percent of the Ravens’ total yards via the air. His 2012 postseason is well documented as the possession wideout was on the receiving end of exactly 1/3 of Flacco’s 1,140 passing yards and reined in four of the quarterback’s 11 touchdown passes.

Make no mistake, we’re not talking about a bona fide No. 1 receiver and Boldin was struggling more and more to gain separation in man coverage, but his strong hands and ability inside the red zone must be replaced by someone — or some combination of players. The Ravens say they’re confident in tight end Dennis Pitta as well as young receivers Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson to compete to fill the void in the slot, but there’s a reason why the latter two were little more than afterthoughts on the 53-man roster last season. Maybe one or both will emerge to become serviceable receivers, but the Ravens can’t possibly count on either to bring even a modest fraction of what Boldin offered.

Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones certainly remind you that the cupboard isn’t totally bare at the position like it was a decade ago, but neither provides enough consistency in the short-to-intermediate passing game and are too valuable as vertical threats on the outside.

It’s worth asking how much of the burden will fall on Flacco, who is entering his sixth NFL season and is in the prime of his career after signing a six-year, $120.6 million contract earlier this offseason. Is the quarterback dependent on good receivers to be successful or are young receivers relying on the Super Bowl MVP in their own development at this stage in the game?

Still, you have to wonder what the Ravens have up their sleeve with barely a whisper of any significant interest in this year’s crop of free-agent wide receivers. Are the Ravens simply turning to the draft with confidence in a late first-round option such as Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins, Cal’s Keenan Allen, or USC’s Robert Woods to potentially step in and contribute from Day One? Would a second-day target such as 6-foot-4 Justin Hunter of Tennessee or troubled Tennessee Tech wideout Da’Rick Rogers strike their fancy?

Or should we be on alert for a trade? Manned with 12 selections in next week’s draft, the Ravens have never shied away from dealing picks for established talent as they completed draft-weekend deals for wide receiver Kevin Johnson and cornerback Fabian Washington in the last decade.

Their summer trade two years ago for Lee Evans may have failed miserably, but it was another example of Newsome’s willingness to part with a mid-round selection to snag a wideout. And, of course, the Ravens dealt two picks to the Arizona Cardinals for Boldin three years ago in a deal that worked to perfection.

This offseason, all is quiet on the wide receiver front with no big names publicly on the block, but it’s difficult to imagine the Ravens simply standing pat with what they currently have at the position. Baltimore tried to enhance its wide receiver depth in each of the last three years by signing T.J. Houshmandzadeh in 2010, trading for Evans in 2011, and inking Jones last year, so the thought of Newsome and the front office allowing draft weekend to come and go without an impact draft selection or failing to explore a trade to address the void left behind by Boldin just doesn’t seem plausible.

By no means does it need to be a carbon-copy replacement, but Boldin’s giant shadow is still too great not to address with either a savvy veteran or a young player holding a higher ceiling than the candidates already on the roster.

In an offseason in which patience has been preached over and over, the Ravens will ask for a little more as nearly every other position has been handled in some shape or form for the short term. Even left tackle has several accessible backup options if a young prospect doesn’t fall into the Ravens’ laps in the first two days of the draft.

But failing to address the Boldin departure would be too great of a risk to take.

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