If not Torrey Smith, then who for the Ravens?

February 04, 2015 | Luke Jones

No Ravens free-agent-to-be has sparked more debate over the last several months than wide receiver Torrey Smith as he’s set to hit the open market in a few weeks.

So much time is spent picking apart his shortcomings in running routes and arguing that he’s not a No. 1 receiver — there aren’t 32 of them in the entire NFL, by the way — that we lose sight of what Smith has brought to the table in his four years with the Ravens. Prior to his selection in the second round of the 2011 draft, the Ravens lacked any kind of a vertical threat for quarterback Joe Flacco and were regularly suffocated by any defense simply playing Cover 2 with aggressive cornerbacks. From the moment he arrived, the speedy receiver brought an ability to not only stretch the field, but make plays in the process of doing so.

The University of Maryland product ranks third on the all-time franchise list in receptions and is second with 30 touchdown catches while never missing a game in four years. After a 2013 season in which he caught 65 passes for 1,128 yards — both career highs — his numbers dipped to 49 catches for 767 yards under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, but Smith still caught a career-best 11 touchdowns and drew an impressive 261 yards on pass interference calls. The six-foot, 205-pound wideout wasn’t a great fit in Kubiak’s system that focused on short-to-intermediate passing, but his skill set is something that would be hard to replace.

By all accounts, Smith is also one of the best men in the Ravens locker room, a factor that shouldn’t be lost in the wake of last offseason when five players were arrested and after the recent reports of Will Hill and Terrence Cody being in trouble with the law. Character can’t be everything when it comes to valuing a player, but it should count for something.

It’s true that Smith profiles best as a good No. 2 receiver, but that still carries substantial value, evident by a CBS Sports report indicating the Ravens offered him a five-year, $35 million contract prior to the 2014 season. And even if the 26-year-old won’t cash in on his gamble in the same way that Flacco did in his walk year two years ago, offers in that same neighborhood — or slightly better — will still be thrown his way on the open market. Resources such as Spotrac.com have projected Smith to be worth slightly above $7 million per year, and that’s before learning whether top free-agent receivers such as Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, and Randall Cobb will even hit the market.

If you’re convinced the Ravens shouldn’t pay Smith what they offered him a few months ago or sweeten the deal a bit to potentially get it done, then what?

Even if Bryant, Thomas, and Cobb find their way to the market, the Ravens won’t have the salary cap space to make a competitive offer. Philadelphia’s Jeremy Maclin would be next on the list, but most project him to fetch more than Smith in free agency. A look at contracts signed in recent offseasons likely puts Smith in line with the deals received by Eric Decker and Golden Tate last offseason, but the final price will depend on the supply of quality receivers on the market and the number of teams willing to spend.

Whether re-signing Smith or not, the Ravens will take a long look at the wide receiver position in the draft, but Alabama’s Amari Cooper and West Virginia’s Kevin White will be long gone by the time they pick 26th overall. And let’s not forget that general manager Ozzie Newsome’s sterling draft reputation doesn’t extend to the wide receiver position where Smith is the Ravens’ biggest success story in two decades. Going into the draft needing to find a starting receiver with a late first-round pick isn’t a recipe for success for a playoff-caliber team.

Drafting a wideout such as DeVante Parker, Dorial Green-Beckham, Jaelen Strong, or Devin Funchess could pay off in the long run, but few positions are as unpredictable as wide receiver, especially if you’re expecting one to play a significant role immediately.

Should Smith depart, the Ravens would be looking at a 36-year-old Steve Smith as one starter and a competition among the likes of Marlon Brown, Kamar Aiken, Michael Campanaro, and Jacoby Jones (if he isn’t a cap casualty) for the No. 2 spot. Those receivers are complementary parts — not NFL starters — at this stage, and the Ravens can’t depend too much on Steve Smith, who slowed down at different points last season after a blazing start.

As they have in the past, Baltimore could look for another short-term veteran fix, but there’s only so much upside to be had with receivers on the wrong side of 30, especially if you’re looking for someone to stretch the field.

Of course, Smith will also need to prove just how much he wants to remain in Baltimore as he told WNST.net last week that he won’t necessarily go to the highest bidder and complimented the organization for giving him a chance to win every year. If the Ravens are still offering the fifth-year receiver what they did a few months ago and are willing to offer a little more as a show of faith in him, Smith can’t accuse them of disrespecting him after a season he’s described himself as less than stellar.

Most agree that Smith needs to be “the right player at the right price” for the Ravens to continue their relationship with him, but his departure would spell bad news for a team trying to build on a 10-6 season that ended in the divisional round.

His detractors have had few problems pointing out what Smith isn’t, but replacing him would be more difficult than many are willing to admit.