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

Posted on 20 March 2018 by 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.

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Ravens use old habit in landing veteran receiver Crabtree

Posted on 16 March 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After one of the more bizarre starts to free agency in team history, the Ravens turned to an old habit at the wide receiver position by courting a veteran cast aside by his former team.

A day after voiding a four-year, $29 million agreement with the largely-unproven Ryan Grant because of a failed physical, Baltimore signed former Oakland wide receiver Michael Crabtree to a three-year contract on Friday. The deal is worth a total of $21 million and includes a $7 million signing bonus and $11 million guaranteed, according to NFL Network.

Upon being released by the Raiders on Thursday, the 30-year-old said his first call came from the Ravens before he caught the first flight to Baltimore and arrived for a visit at the team’s Owings Mills facility early Friday morning. The daylong negotiation reflected the Ravens’ urgency to strike a deal after what had transpired the previous day with Grant, a sequence of events that’s drawn skepticism and even accusations of wrongdoing from some critics.

A former San Francisco 49er who was targeted on the fourth-down incompletion in the end zone on the famous goal-line stand in Super Bowl XLVII, Crabtree becomes the latest in a long line of veteran wideouts to join the Ravens in the latter stages of their career.

Familiarity contributed to Crabtree’s decision as he previously played for Ravens assistant head coach Greg Roman and wide receivers coach Bobby Engram, both former 49ers assistants. Of course, he also played for the brother of Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh as Jim Harbaugh served as 49ers head coach for Crabtree’s final four seasons in San Francisco.

“Jim and John, they’re like the same to me. When I talk to them, it’s like I’m talking to the same person,” said Crabtree as he laughed during his conference call with local reporters. “It’s almost as if they were twins or something. It’s weird, but it’s a new team for me, a new journey.”

After a disappointing season from Jeremy Maclin that resulted in his release earlier this week, general manager Ozzie Newsome hopes another 2009 first-round wide receiver can provide the physical presence on third down and in the red zone the Ravens have mostly lacked since trading Anquan Boldin in 2013. Crabtree is coming off a down season in which he caught only 58 passes for 618 yards — reflecting the struggles of the entire Oakland offense — but he still caught eight touchdowns, only three fewer than Baltimore’s entire collection of wide receivers in 2017.

In nine NFL seasons, the Texas Tech product has totaled 579 receptions for 6,870 yards and 51 touchdowns. Despite coming off his lowest catch and yardage totals since his injury-shortened 2013 campaign, Crabtree recorded the second 1,000-yard season of his career in 2016, helping the Raiders return to the playoffs for the first time in well over a decade.

Crabtree has registered 33 catches for 444 yards and six touchdowns in five career games against the Ravens, something that didn’t go unnoticed by Newsome in the pursuit of the veteran. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound wideout collected six receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown in Baltimore’s Week 5 win at Oakland last season.

“We know firsthand the attributes he brings to the game,” Newsome said in a statement released by the team. “He is a smart, tough, physical receiver who battles for the ball. We like his temperament and believe he is a good fit for our football team, on and off the field.”

Crabtree is now the second receiver to officially sign with the Ravens this week after a one-year, $5 million contract with former Arizona speedster John Brown was finalized on Thursday. It’s the continuation of Newsome’s stated desire to revamp the wide receiver position after the Ravens finished 29th in passing offense last season. Despite receiving much scrutiny over the timing of Grant’s voided deal coinciding with Crabtree’s release, Newsome said earlier Friday that the Ravens were interested in the veteran before receiving the results of Grant’s physical.

Baltimore wide receivers combined for 34 touchdown receptions over the last three seasons while Crabtree recorded 25 over that time with the Raiders. With Maclin gone and speedy veteran Mike Wallace currently an unrestricted free agent, the Ravens will be counting on Crabtree to provide veteran leadership as well as consistent production for a group lacking experience and accomplishments.

They also envision a motivated veteran eager to prove he has plenty of good football left despite being jettisoned by the Raiders.

“I felt like I was the leader in the room at [age] 21. But it was more off example, leading by example,” Crabtree said. “The older I’ve gotten, it seems like it’s more verbal. It’s more speaking, showing these guys and telling these guys instead of just showing them by example.

“It’s a little different when you get older. I’m comfortable with it. I feel like I’m in my prime right now. I’m ready to go. I feel young; I feel like I’m still 25.”

Crabtree’s mercurial personality has sometimes led to a reputation for having attitude problems and he was even ejected for fighting with former Denver cornerback Aqib Talib in a game last season, but the Ravens could stand to benefit from more attitude on the offensive side of the ball, especially with the free-agent departure of starting center Ryan Jensen becoming official Friday night. Despite being a Dallas native, Crabtree said he grew up a Ravens fan because of their “hard-nosed” defense, which could partly explain his fiery personality that occasionally crosses the line.

Newsome says he’s not finished addressing the wide receiver position despite two free-agent additions in the first week of free agency, also noting Friday that the door was still open for Wallace and fellow free agent Michael Campanaro to potentially return. Next month’s draft may lack a clear-cut franchise-changing receiver, but the depth of talent projected to go in the second and third rounds should be appealing for an organization that struck out on 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman and has otherwise waited until the later rounds to draft receivers who amounted to little more than fliers.

The Ravens also continue to search for help at tight end with their reported interest in former Detroit first-round pick Eric Ebron, who was released earlier this week.

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Ravens’ deal with wide receiver Grant off due to failed physical

Posted on 16 March 2018 by Luke Jones

The opening week of free agency took a strange turn for the Ravens on Thursday as a four-year, $29 million agreement with wide receiver Ryan Grant fell apart because of a failed physical.

The Ravens issued a release Wednesday announcing its pending deals with Grant and fellow free-agent wide receiver John Brown as the pair traveled to Baltimore to take their physicals and likely be introduced to the local media on Thursday. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Grant did not pass due to concerns over an ankle injury sustained at the end of last season as a member of the Washington Redskins. Despite being diagnosed with the sickle-cell trait in 2016 and dealing with a number of ailments over the last couple seasons, Brown, 27, passed his physical and has officially signed his one-year, $5 million contract.

Grant hasn’t missed a game in his four-year career, but he was listed on the team’s official injury report for each of the final three games of the 2017 season with an ankle issue. According to the team’s official website, the 27-year-old was a limited participant in practices and listed as questionable ahead of the Week 15 game against Arizona, but he was a full participant in practices over the final two weeks and wasn’t even listed on the Week 16 and Week 17 final game status reports.

Thursday’s news was met with some scrutiny after the Ravens were already criticized by many for awarding the second-richest wide receiver contract in team history to the 6-foot, 193-pound wideout with just 84 career receptions and not a single 100-yard game to his name. It didn’t help that the news coincided with the ESPN report of the just-released wide receiver Michael Crabtree visiting Baltimore on Friday, but the Ravens had also been interested in wide receiver Jordy Nelson before Grant’s physical even took place, making it clear general manager Ozzie Newsome wasn’t yet satisfied in his efforts to revamp the wide receiver position after coming to terms with both Grant and Brown.

Newsome is scheduled to hold a press conference in Owings Mills on Friday morning.

This isn’t the first time the Ravens have been in this kind of a position in their history as they agreed to terms with free-agent safety Brock Marion in 1997 before concerns about his shoulder voided the agreement, prompting him to re-sign with Dallas. Marion would play eight more seasons and even make it to three Pro Bowls as a member of the Miami Dolphins.

Regardless of the many negative reactions to the original agreement that included $14.5 million guaranteed or how serious the Ravens’ concerns were about Grant’s ankle, Thursday’s news wasn’t the best look for an organization that’s failed to build an adequate offense around quarterback Joe Flacco while missing the playoffs in four of the last five years. Newsome, assistant general manager and heir apparent Eric DeCosta, and the rest of the front office have a good reputation around the league and should receive the benefit of the doubt with agents. However, negative perceptions about a team’s physical process — as fair and accurate as it might be — can conceivably hinder dealings with agents and future free agents who could be in fear of failing and potentially harming their value on the open market.

It’s a more extreme example, of course, but look at the Orioles, who have been harshly criticized for their rigid physicals over the years that have nixed a handful of agreements before those players have ended up enduring those identified health issues playing elsewhere. No matter how pure the intentions, the burden of being right can still have undesired consequences.

In this case, the Ravens hope to quickly regroup and strike a deal with Crabtree, who is clearly a more accomplished wide receiver than Grant despite coming off a down season in which he caught just 58 passes for 618 yards with Oakland. The 30-year-old still caught eight touchdowns last year and made a career-high 89 catches and recorded the second 1,000-yard season of his career in 2016.

Crabtree would be the replacement for Jeremy Maclin, another 2009 first-round pick who was released earlier this week after his lone disappointing season in Baltimore.

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Veteran wide receiver Maclin officially released by Ravens

Posted on 14 March 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens envisioned Jeremy Maclin as the next veteran wide receiver to enjoy success in Baltimore after being cast aside elsewhere when he signed a two-year, $11 million contract last June.

But he turned out to be closer to T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Lee Evans than Steve Smith or Anquan Boldin, prompting Baltimore to release him before the start of the new league year on Wednesday. The move was expected after Maclin caught a career-low 40 passes for 440 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games and never seemed to mesh with his new team. The 29-year-old was also hampered by injuries ranging from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for two games in October to a knee sprain that ended his season in mid-December.

The move clears roughly $4.5 million in salary cap space when including the player taking Maclin’s place in the “Rule of 51” calculation.

Maclin’s tenure in Baltimore got off on the wrong foot as he recorded only two June minicamp practices with Joe Flacco before the veteran quarterback would then miss all of training camp and the preseason with a back injury. Despite connecting for a touchdown in each of the first two games of the season, the two never developed a consistent rapport. Maclin caught a season-high eight passes for 98 yards in the Week 9 loss at Tennessee, but he would mostly be a non-factor the rest of the way, recording no more than 41 receiving yards in his five remaining contests before injuring his knee early in the Week 15 win at Cleveland.

It marked the second straight disappointing season for Maclin as he caught just 44 passes for 536 yards and two touchdowns with Kansas City in 2016. Prior to that, he had recorded back-to-back seasons of at least 1,000 yards and eight touchdown catches.

General manager Ozzie Newsome said earlier this month he intended to make significant changes at the wide receiver position and agreed to deals with free agents Ryan Grant and John Brown on Tuesday. Mike Wallace and Michael Campanaro are also free agents who could join Maclin in exiting Baltimore this offseason.

The Ravens have now said goodbye to each of their three notable offensive additions from last year as running back Danny Woodhead and right tackle Austin Howard were let go Tuesday. While Howard played well, the other two battled injuries and didn’t live up to expectations after many questioned why the Ravens didn’t do more to improve a below-average offense from the 2016 season.

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Ravens open their wallet in lucrative wide receiver market

Posted on 13 March 2018 by Luke Jones

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome vowed to make changes to the wide receiver room in his final season in charge, resulting in a surprising opening to free agency.

After failing to land a top-tier talent such as Jarvis Landry or Allen Robinson, the Ravens have opened their wallet to spend significant money in one of the most lucrative markets for seemingly-ordinary wide receivers we’ve ever seen. Whether that’s a smart decision is open for debate.

The reported one-year, $5 million agreement with former Arizona Cardinals wide receiver John Brown at least involves a wideout who recorded a 1,000-yard season earlier in his career, but the four-year, $29 million deal with $14.5 million guaranteed reportedly struck with former Washington wide receiver Ryan Grant was immediately met with shock and even confusion Tuesday night. Grant did set career highs with 45 catches for 573 yards and four touchdowns in 2017, but the 27-year-old has made just 84 receptions for 985 yards and six touchdowns over his four NFL seasons combined.

Is that production worthy of one of the richest wide receiver contracts in team history? Of course, that’s not exactly an extensive list of deals as the Ravens have historically been very thrifty at the position, but this was an organization lacking salary cap space, making the Grant signing even more puzzling.

At such a price, are these two even as good as Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin, let alone better?

The 6-foot, 204-pound Grant was a favorite of Washington head coach Jay Gruden and is considered a good route-runner with the ability to play outside or in the slot, but he’s never had as much as a 100-yard game in his career. A 2014 fifth-round pick from Tulane, Grant graded 57th among qualified wide receivers by Pro Football Focus this past season and ranked 60th among outside receivers in Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 project, the latter of which labeling him an “ideal” No. 4 receiver.

The Ravens brass clearly sees substantial potential to award him that type of a deal, but scrutiny will understandably until Grant proves critics wrong.

Meanwhile, Brown provides some intriguing upside if he can stay healthy after he caught 65 passes for 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015. The speedy 5-foot-11, 179-pound receiver has averaged 14.5 yards per catch in his career, but he was diagnosed with the sickle-cell trait in 2016 and has been slowed by various injuries over the last two seasons.

In 2017, Brown played in only 10 games and caught 21 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns. The former third-round pick from Pittsburg State has caught 173 passes for 2,515 yards and 17 touchdowns in his four-year career.

For Brown, a high ceiling is there, but there’s also a low floor because of health concerns.

With these expected signings at the start of free agency, the Ravens wide receiver room has certainly changed as Newsome promised. Whether it’s truly any better is the fair question.

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