Mike Preston: Ravens’ path to finding a No. 1 receiver is filled with obstacles

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Mike Preston, The Baltimore Sun
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BALTIMORE — From past draft failures to the drawbacks of a one-dimensional offense, the Ravens’ path to finding a No. 1 receiver is filled with obstacles.

Finding a top-notch receiver is one of the team’s priorities this offseason, along with improving the interior of the offensive line and securing an edge rusher or outside linebacker.

With the No. 27 overall pick in the NFL draft next month, the Ravens could end up with a highly rated receiver such as LSU’s Terrace Marshall Jr., Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman, Purdue’s Rondale Moore or Florida’s Kadarius Toney.

But that’s what worries me.

In the past, receivers taken by the Ravens in the first round haven’t played up to expectations. The Ravens have gotten more receiving production through free agency, but that’s when the team had a more pass-oriented offense.

So, if the Ravens wanted to take an offensive lineman in the first round, that makes sense because of the success of former first-round picks such as tackles Jonathan Ogden, Ronnie Stanley and Michael Oher and guard Ben Grubbs. They’ve had some success with first-round outside linebackers, too, such as Peter Boulware and Terrell Suggs.

But wide receiver?

It’s been a mess, from Travis Taylor to Mark Clayton to Breshad Perriman. The Ravens drafted Oklahoma receiver Marquise Brown in the first round in 2019, but the verdict is still out on him. So far, it appears he is a No. 2 at best.

The need for a top receiver is understandable, but the Ravens have some other pieces in place to build a balanced passing game. Tight end Mark Andrews can work all the parts of the field, Brown and 2020 third-round pick Devin Duvernay are fast receivers who can excel in the slot and second-year player James Proche II is a possible possession type.

A big, physical and speedy receiver on the outside would be the perfect complement, but the Ravens have never hit on that type of player in the first round.

Here are two other things to consider: The Ravens’ passing game concepts are very simplistic, and they have a quarterback in Lamar Jackson who is inaccurate throwing outside the numbers. So, if the Ravens don’t modify their concepts or Jackson doesn’t improve, they’re just wasting their time and a first-round pick.

The concerns are similar in free agency. There are a couple of top receivers who might hit the open market, including the Chicago Bears’ Allen Robinson, the Detroit Lions’ Kenny Golladay and the Houston Texans’ Will Fuller V, but do they really want to play for a team that runs as much as the Ravens?

In 2019, the Ravens ran the ball 596 times compared with 440 passing attempts. Last season it was 555 runs to 406 passes.

“Basically, what I do is evaluate the players, and then if we like them, we’ll call the agent and we call the player,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said recently. “If they want to play for us, great. If they don’t, OK — that’s just the way it is.

“There’s not a lot of rocket science involved. You’re not really saying, ‘Well, I don’t want to play for you guys.’ I’ve never had a player yet say to me, ‘I don’t want to come play for the Baltimore Ravens, because you don’t throw the ball.’ It hasn’t happened yet — maybe it will.”

They are just being polite to DeCosta. Soon-to-be free agents Dez Bryant and Willie Snead IV and even Brown have talked or tweeted about the lack of opportunities in Baltimore, especially after Jackson completed his third season without showing much improvement as a passer.

The Ravens have to be committed to a run-dominant offense for at least two more years under Jackson. DeCosta has pointed out that some free-agent receivers have said they like the franchise, the stadium and the defense, as well as the fact that the Ravens are serious playoff contenders.

Those are indeed good selling points, but the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs can say the same thing. Those teams can also offer more pass-catching opportunities and the chance to win a Super Bowl ring while making similar money to what Baltimore offers.

You can take the diva out of the offense, but you can’t take the diva out of the receiver. They are going to whine and complain if they don’t get the ball. It’s the nature of the position and part of their personality.

The Ravens have had some success in signing quality free-agent receivers in the past, such as Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith Sr. and Derrick Mason. But Boldin and Smith were in the twilight years of their careers and Boldin earned icon status in Baltimore by having a strong postseason in 2012 when the Ravens won the Super Bowl.

But the common thread between all three is that they came to Baltimore with the idea of playing alongside former Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Regardless if you loved him or hated him, Flacco could make a quality throw on every pattern in the passing tree. Receivers want to play with those types of quarterbacks.

So, let’s put this in perspective. If the Ravens sign a receiver via free agency, it’s likely to be a veteran on the downside of his career, because the receivers at their peak probably don’t want to play in this offense. The Ravens might be better off drafting one in the first round, because at least they’ll be cheaper and need to prove themselves.

It might be the only option.