What’s next in Ravens’ quest for pass catchers?

March 20, 2018 | Luke Jones

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome uttered the key term at the conclusion of last Friday’s press conference introducing free-agent acquisition John Brown.

Pass catchers.

The Ravens need more of them.

Newsome began to make good on his vow to change the look of the wide receiver room by adding two in the opening week of free agency with established veteran Michael Crabtree and the talented but oft-injured Brown, but there’s more work to be done. What that looks like by the time the Ravens kick off in September remains to be seen with needs remaining not only at wide receiver but tight end, and one could even argue that a situational running back would be helpful after the release of pass-catching specialist Danny Woodhead.

Of course, the goal isn’t just to fill open roster spots at those positions as quickly as you can with familiar names. The Ravens need diverse skills in a passing game that ranked 29th in the NFL last season and has been broken since Gary Kubiak’s lone season as offensive coordinator in 2014. They need pass catchers at every level who can make plays and create yards after the catch.

It sounds simple, but the last several years have proven it’s anything but that for an organization that signed Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco to a record-setting contract in 2013 and has proceeded to neglect his side of the ball on a near-annual basis. One hopes the Ravens have finally learned their lesson after signing two wide receivers this past week and agreeing to terms with another before a failed physical squashed their four-year, $29 million deal with the unproven Ryan Grant, a development that understandably raised some scrutiny.

Crabtree isn’t a No. 1 receiver, but he offers a skill set that fits more closely to that of Anquan Boldin than any receiver Baltimore has had since jettisoning the latter five years ago. Not known for his speed even in his younger days, the 30-year-old uses toughness and route-running ability to make contested catches to move the chains and finish drives in the red zone, evident by his 25 touchdown catches over the last three seasons.

It’s fair to note the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Crabtree is coming off his worst statistical year since his in-season return from an Achilles injury in 2013, but motivation from being released by Oakland and an environment that’s been hospitable to veteran wideouts in the past set up a reasonable scenario for him to rebound from a 58-catch, 618-yard campaign that still included eight touchdowns. The ceiling may not be terribly high for a seasoned veteran with just two 1,000-yard campaigns in his career, but Crabtree should remain reliably productive if healthy.

Meanwhile, the speedy Brown is a $5 million wild card who appeared on his way to becoming a standout contributor after his first two NFL seasons in which he caught a combined 113 passes for 1,699 yards and 12 touchdowns in an Arizona offense that had much competition for targets. However, injuries have plagued him since his 1,003-yard campaign in 2015 as he was diagnosed with the sickle-cell trait and has been slowed by an array of ailments.

On paper, the 27-year-old fills the role of free-agent vertical threat Mike Wallace, but he’s shown the ability to be more diverse in running routes and shouldn’t be classified as a “one-trick pony” either. Unfortunately, a 2017 season in which he missed six games and registered only 299 receiving yards should make it obvious that he can’t be the only option in the speed department either. That’s why a reunion with Wallace on a modest deal could make sense as Newsome confirmed he’s remained in contact with the veteran’s representation.

Unless Crabtree moves inside more frequently than he has in the past, a slot receiver remains on the Ravens’ wish list with the just-released Allen Hurns representing an intriguing option on the market. At 6-foot-3, he’s not the prototypical slot guy, but he’s been productive in that role and his big frame would be another good red-zone target for Flacco. The problem is he’s also dealt with injuries, missing a total of 11 games since his breakout 2015 season.

It’s a critical balance for the Ravens as they need to do more at wide receiver and tight end, but they shouldn’t fixate too much on band-aid veterans with limited upside at the expense of finding long-term answers, which are more likely to come in next month’s draft. No, you can’t count on a rookie wide receiver or tight end to pop immediately, but that shouldn’t be an argument to sign an inferior veteran and forgo drafting players at those positions altogether. It’s easy to point to 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman as validation for not drafting a wide receiver, but remember he’s the only wide receiver selected by Baltimore in the first three rounds of the last six drafts.

Going off what’s currently available on the open market and barring an unforeseen trade, you’d like to see the Ravens come away with at least one wide receiver and one tight end over the first few rounds of the draft. If not, you can’t help but think they’ll be right back in the same position with the same issues next year.

When a team has this much work to do to fix its passing game, questions will inevitably remain entering the season.

Last week was a start, but a deeper collection of experience and youth with diverse skills is needed to breathe life into an offense that’s held Baltimore back for too long. Crabtree presents a good safety net on third down and in the red zone while Brown is a boom-or-bust option.

Let’s see if the Ravens finish the job this time around.