Even with Smith’s return, Ravens have work to do at receiver

December 31, 2015 | Luke Jones

Steve Smith returning for the 2016 season is good news for the Ravens.

You don’t easily replace the leadership, fire, and experience of a possible Hall of Fame player, and I won’t be the one to doubt his ability to defy the odds as a 37-year-old wide receiver coming back from a torn Achilles tendon, a serious injury for players even much younger than him.

But Ozzie Newsome must be realistic and can’t just plan on Smith being his No. 1 wide receiver in 2016. The longtime general manager needs to do more at the position this offseason after not doing enough this past year.

When the Ravens signed Smith to a three-year, $10.5 million contract two offseasons ago, the veteran said he anticipated being a “complementary” receiver behind Torrey Smith, but we know how that turned out as the veteran was the clear No.1 guy — and deserved to be. This time around, however, the organization quietly needs to view him as a No. 2 or No. 3 option in his 16th NFL season and can then be pleasantly surprised if he posts the ninth 1,000-yard season of his brilliant career.

Contrary to most of the 20-year history of this franchise, it’s not against NFL bylaws to have a surplus of talent at the wide receiver position.

As the Ravens conclude the first losing season of the John Harbaugh era, they have Kamar Aiken and an abundance of No. 5 and No. 6 receivers on the current roster. Aiken has more than proven himself as a starting possession receiver in Smith’s absence, but the two have similar attributes at this point and didn’t mesh as well being on the field at the same time early this season.

Baltimore still needs more speed at the position.

No, I haven’t forgotten about 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman, but the Ravens can’t make the same mistake twice in counting on the Central Florida product without a backup plan. The 6-foot-2 Perriman may still realize his potential in the NFL, but questions will persist about his health and his overall ability until he can stay on the football field to silence them.

It’s easy to say the Ravens need a No. 1 receiver, but those talents aren’t just congregating outside the gates at 1 Winning Drive in Owings Mills waiting for a league-minimum contract. A less-than-ideal salary cap position makes it unlikely that a top free agent like Alshon Jeffery will be an option, and Newsome probably can’t afford to trade multiple picks for a bona fide No. 1 wideout when the Ravens need an infusion of talent at multiple positions on either side of the ball.

But hedging their bets on the trio of Smith, Aiken, and Perriman is a must. Whether it’s signing or trading for a starting-caliber veteran or selecting another receiver in the early rounds of the 2016 draft, the Ravens need another legitimate option to throw into the mix. It would be a move for the post-Smith future as much as next season.

Even if that addition wouldn’t be a No. 1 receiver himself, Newsome adding more impact talent can only help the current group.

As for other receivers on the roster such as Michael Campanaro, Jeremy Butler, Darren Waller, Chris Matthews, and Daniel Brown, the Ravens can bring as many as they’d like to organized team activities and training camp, but none should be projected as anything better than No. 5 or No. 6 options at this point. Let’s face it, we’ve heard the hype about the late-round picks and rookie free agents on an annual basis with little to show for it as even Aiken had spent time with three other organizations before finally arriving in Baltimore in 2013.

The Ravens left themselves with no margin for error at the wide receiver position this season and paid dearly for it when Perriman went down on the first day of training camp and Smith was lost midway through the season. Both have the potential to help the Ravens immensely in 2016, but Aiken is the only safe bet of their top three right now.

Even if he’s not his old explosive self after the injury, Smith can still help on the field and in the meeting rooms.

But he can’t be viewed as the only solution this offseason to the problems at wide receiver.

Such expectations would be unfair to him and unfair to the Ravens.