Nearly two weeks into free agency, the Ravens appear no closer to filling gaping holes at the wide receiver and tight end positions after losing Torrey Smith and Owen Daniels.
Viable options on the open market are dwindling and it would deviate from general manager Ozzie Newsome’s “best player available” philosophy to enter April’s draft with two starting positions to fill. Of course, a trade cannot be ruled out with Baltimore projected to have 10 or 11 draft picks — compensatory choices will be announced this week — and Newsome has acquired the likes of left tackle Eugene Monroe, center Jeremy Zuttah, and even former Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin through trades in recent years.
But the lack of activity makes you wonder if the Ravens have more confidence in their current batch of wide receivers or tight ends — or both — than the outside world does.
It was only a year ago when many were discussing how desperately the Ravens needed a starting right tackle following the free-agent departure of the disappointing Michael Oher. Considered little more than an afterthought by most, 2013 fifth-round pick Rick Wagner became an instant upgrade and an above-average starter in his second NFL season after playing sparingly as a rookie.
Who might the Ravens view as this year’s Wagner?
At the wide receiver position, Marlon Brown is the most experienced receiver remaining behind veteran Steve Smith as he caught 24 passes for 255 yards in his second season after collecting 49 receptions for 524 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie in 2013. Despite a slow start working in Gary Kubiak’s new offensive system, Brown became more involved as the 2014 season progressed with 16 of his 24 receptions going for first downs.
The other logical in-house candidate to emerge at the receiver position would be Kamar Aiken, who caught 24 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns in his first year with the Ravens. The 6-foot-2, 213-pound receiver plays with a physical nature that the organization likes.
Of course, a deep draft class of wide receivers makes it feasible that the Ravens could find an immediate starter in the first round, but the lack of a veteran addition could signal that they likes their young receivers more than we think. Either way, the addition of a productive vertical threat is an absolute must for strong-armed quarterback Joe Flacco by the start of the season.
Failing to do so would mean trouble for the Ravens offense in 2015.
Shifting focus to the tight end position, Crockett Gillmore is the strongest candidate of any player at any position to become this year’s version of Wagner. The 2014 third-round pick is currently the safest bet at his position on the offseason roster with veteran Dennis Pitta’s future remaining in doubt.
Gillmore caught just 10 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown in the regular season, but he caught a 21-yard touchdown in the wild-card win over Pittsburgh and the Ravens appeared more comfortable involving him in the passing game as the season progressed. If you’re looking for precedent with the Ravens handing over the starting tight end job to an inexperienced option, then-rookies Ed Dickson and Pitta had a total of 12 receptions for 153 yards behind veteran Todd Heap in 2010 before combining to make 94 catches for 933 yards and eight touchdowns a year later.
Do the Ravens need to add another tight end? Absolutely, but the lack of free-agent activity to this point — Baltimore reportedly had mild interest in veteran Scott Chandler before he signed with New England — and an underwhelming draft class make you wonder if Baltimore has a higher opinion of Gillmore than most observers. Barring a trade, finding a backup tight end would certainly appear more feasible than a starter at this point.
The discussion at either position could become moot at any point as Newsome has more than five months to shape the roster for the regular season. No one is suggesting the Ravens should — or will — stand pat at wide receiver or tight end, but few would have endorsed Wagner as the starting right tackle at this time a year ago.
It’s simply a possibility to keep in mind as the offseason continues and we inch closer to the draft with the Ravens’ two biggest needs yet to be addressed.