OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The free-agent signing of Steve Smith more than two years ago helped rectify one of the biggest mistakes in Ravens history.
But his “89 percent” likely retirement following Sunday’s season finale in Cincinnati puts the franchise back in an all-too-familiar position.
Even at age 37 and coming off a horrific Achilles injury, Smith still served as quarterback Joe Flacco’s most reliable weapon in a trying season. He may not have enjoyed the same team success in his three seasons in purple, but Smith put up similar numbers to those produced by Anquan Boldin, the man he eventually replaced after a post-Super Bowl XLVII trade blew up in the Ravens’ faces in the 2013 season.
“I feel very fortunate to be with him,” Flacco said. “His competitive nature and the way he plays his game and the talent that he has, he’s definitely unique and a rare breed. Anytime you get a chance to play with a guy that’s really a legend in this game is, count yourself lucky.”
Once the Ravens sort out their offensive coaching staff for next season, replacing Smith will be one of the top priorities of the offseason.
The cupboard isn’t completely bare at wide receiver with Mike Wallace under contract for 2017 and on the cusp of completing a 1,000-yard season, but the speedy veteran fits better as the No. 2 wideout to stretch the field vertically with explosive plays. Expecting him to be the well-rounded top guy would likely fetch similar results to what happened in 2013 when Torrey Smith was miscast as a No. 1 receiver.
There’s also 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman, but injuries and inconsistency have made it difficult for the Ravens to plan for him to be anything more than a No. 3 option with upside entering next season. It’s much too soon to declare Perriman a bust, but he has a lot of work to do to become a integral cog.
Kamar Aiken led the Ravens with 944 receiving yards in 2015 and has shown physicality that you like to see in a possession receiver, but he’s also scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and has been unhappy with his diminished role this season. That leads you to believe he’ll be looking to move on this winter.
Whether general manager Ozzie Newsome pursues an accomplished veteran such as Pierre Garcon in free agency or once again dips his toes into draft waters that have been unkind in the past, the Ravens will need a receiver to aggressively work the intermediate portion of the field and to gain yards after the catch. Even with his speed not being what it was in his early days with Carolina, Smith always played bigger and tougher than his 5-foot-9, 195-pound frame suggested.
“He’s powerful. He’s not very big, but he’s so explosive, so powerful, can change directions like that,” Flacco said. “He’s just so strong for his size — not even just for his size. He’s just a strong dude. The ferociousness that he runs with the ball, how he runs with the ball, so many things. I think that comes out in people saying ‘competitiveness.’ He’s just got a lot of ability, and he’s not afraid.”
Of course, Smith brought much more to the table than what showed up in the box score.
Like Boldin, he provided attitude to an offense led by the even-keeled Flacco. His intensity occasionally ruffled feathers — including when he got into a fight with veteran defensive back Lardarius Webb during his first minicamp in Owings Mills — but teammates on both sides of the ball respected that fire.
Smith brought the kind of swagger to the offense that was typically found on many Ravens defenses of yesteryear. Of course, performance on the field is paramount, but that ferocity is something Baltimore frankly needs more of after missing the playoffs in three of the last four seasons.
The intangibles will be difficult to replace, no matter how the Ravens go about replacing Smith’s production.
“Whether it is walking around the locker room yelling at someone or on the field [during] one-on-ones, he is definitely one of a kind,” said safety Eric Weddle, who shared a close friendship with Smith long before he signed with Baltimore this past offseason. “You have to get adjusted to that, just his personality and how big it is and to know this is who he is. This is what drives him. This is what makes him special.”
And with Smith’s decision to walk away, the Ravens are back in a familiar spot looking for someone special at wide receiver.