Replacing Torrey Smith even more difficult than saying goodbye

March 09, 2015 | Luke Jones

The reasons why it’s difficult to say goodbye to Torrey Smith go far beyond receiving yards and touchdown catches for the Ravens and the city of Baltimore.

Others have played better and longer for a franchise approaching its 20th season in Charm City, but few have left the kind of impression the 26-year-old wide receiver did in his four seasons with the Ravens. His heartfelt farewell released Sunday night only scratches the surface in revealing the man as both a football player and, more importantly, a citizen who’s made a difference in the community — and will apparently continue to do so with his stated intention of continuing to make Baltimore his offseason home.

From the heartbreaking — but inspirational — story of his upbringing in Virginia to his days with Ralph Friedgen at the University of Maryland, Smith has grown up before our eyes in some ways. We watched him handle the tragedy of his younger brother’s death with courage and grace while excelling on the field and ultimately helping the Ravens taste the glory that was two division titles, three playoff appearances, and a win in Super Bowl XLVII.

But it can be a cruel business as the Ravens have deemed Smith’s price tag too expensive — a difficult salary-cap picture certainly didn’t help — and the 2011 second-round selection is seizing his first and best chance to receive a lucrative payday elsewhere. You can understand general manager Ozzie Newsome’s decision to walk away from a player who never lived up to the billing of becoming a true No. 1 receiver in the same way that you can respect Smith not being willing to leave millions of dollars on the table in a sport that only guarantees so much.

Even with that common ground of understanding for both sides, it doesn’t change the reality of the Ravens needing to replace Smith on the field.

It’s going to be difficult.

His critics frequently bring up his shortcomings and reiterate that he isn’t a true No. 1 wideout, but those weaknesses shouldn’t sell short his talents as a strong No. 2 option who has suited the strong-armed Joe Flacco perfectly over the last four seasons. His ability to both stretch the field and make big plays shouldn’t be discredited because of a disappointing 2014 season that still included a career-best 11 touchdown catches.

It isn’t only about speed as fast but limited receivers such as Jacoby Jones, Yamon Figurs, and Patrick Johnson have proven over the years. Even if his route-running and hands aren’t as consistent as you’d like, Smith has shown much more talent than straight-line speed.

The six-foot, 205-pound receiver finishes his four-year run in Baltimore ranking third on the franchise’s all-time list in receiving yards and second in touchdown catches, numbers that bring two distinct thoughts to mind. One, he’s been one of the most productive receivers in team history despite having only played four seasons. Second, it reflects how little success Newsome and the Ravens have found at the position in nearly two decades.

And that’s where the real concern lies as Smith represents the franchise’s only significant success story in drafting and developing an impact wide receiver. They finally hit in 2011, but the Ravens have selected a laundry list of disappointments or outright busts at the position that includes Johnson, Travis Taylor, Ron Johnson, Devard Darling, Mark Clayton, Demetrius Williams, Figurs, Marcus Smith, David Reed, and Tandon Doss.

Yuck.

To be fair, Newsome has found success over the years in plucking veterans off the market including Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and, most recently, Steve Smith, but a few duds have been mixed in there as well in Lee Evans, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Kevin Johnson. Of course, Newsome has been one of the best executives in the NFL for almost 20 years and no organization bats 1.000, but the Ravens have routinely been lacking at the receiver position and that’s without even mentioning the decision to dump Boldin two offseasons ago without replacing him for the 2013 season.

Yes, I know that dead horse doesn’t need to be beaten again.

There might be enough of a track record to trust Newsome to at least find a respectable veteran band-aid — Houston’s Andre Johnson would provide more than that if the cost is within the Ravens’ modest means this offseason — but finding a vertical threat as effective as Smith won’t be as easy. The goal is improving the passing game — not treading water or getting slightly worse — and veteran free-agent options such as Michael Crabtree, Cecil Shorts, Eddie Royal, and Nate Washington hardly make you do cartwheels and won’t all be cheap, either.

Not having a vertical threat for Flacco is akin to asking a home-run hitter to try to settle for more singles and doubles. It doesn’t mean he won’t succeed, but you’re not going to maximize your return.

Maybe the Ravens will hit on a future No. 1 receiver with the 26th overall pick in this year’s draft, but their track record suggests finding Torrey Smith’s replacement won’t be that simple and Steve Smith will be 36 this year. The organization is optimistic about its young receivers like Kamar Aiken, Michael Campanaro, Marlon Brown, and Jeremy Butler, but none have shown enough ability to reasonably project a starting role without a major drop-off.

You can understand and respect the Ravens needing to make a difficult financial decision in watching Torrey Smith depart. Newsome has six months to figure it out before the 2015 season kicks off, so it would be silly to push the panic button now.
But there have been too many failures and not enough successes at the wide receiver position over the years to feel great about what will come next.

You just hope the Ravens won’t take as long replacing Torrey Smith as they did to find him.