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Ravens positional review: Wide receivers and tight ends

No position has troubled the Ravens more than wide receiver, where they’ve long sought a big-play star but have come up with temporary solutions at best. They started over with a brand-new group and high hopes in 2018, only to finish the season facing many of the same old questions. As Lamar Jackson develops at quarterback, he’ll need targets to help him reach his potential. So there will be intense scrutiny on this group again in 2019:

2018 in review

The Ravens’ new receivers — Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead IV — were the talk of training camp and the early part of the season as they developed rapid chemistry with quarterback Joe Flacco. Brown seemed like the most dynamic deep threat Flacco had worked with since a prime Torrey Smith, averaging almost 20 yards per catch in the first half of the season. Snead provided badly needed toughness and reliability in the slot. And Crabtree, despite struggling with drops (including one on a potential game-winning touchdown at the Cleveland Browns), produced a big game in the team’s dominant road win over the Tennessee Titans.

All three players saw their production plummet once Jackson took over at quarterback and the Ravens transformed into the most run-heavy team in generations. Crabtree caught just 13 passes on 24 targets over the last seven games. The news was even worse for Brown, who caught eight passes on 30 targets in that span. Snead fared the best, catching 17 passes on 26 targets in Jackson’s games as a starter. But he went two whole games without a single target in that stretch. Fourth receiver Chris Moore was more efficient than he’d been in 2017, catching 19 passes on 25 targets, but his yards per catch dropped from 13.8 to 10.3.

It was hard to blame the receivers, given Jackson’s spotty accuracy and reluctance to throw outside (that might have been a product of deliberately conservative game planning as well). But the bottom line was that no Ravens pass catcher finished in the NFL’s top 40 in receiving yards, and none of the wide receivers graded in the league’s top 50, according to the scouting website Pro Football Focus. That was exactly the sort of disappointing production that led former general manager Ozzie Newsome to overhaul the position group after the 2017 season.

The news was better for the team’s four tight ends. Fourth-year veterans Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams graded as excellent blockers, with Boyle playing an especially large role in the Jackson-led offense. Third-round draft pick Mark Andrews was the revelation of the group, emerging as Jackson’s favorite deep target and making Pro Football Focus’ all-rookie team. After a slow start in the preseason, Andrews proved to be a key generator of first downs and yards after the catch. First-round pick Hayden Hurst, on the other hand, struggled to jumpstart his season after he missed the first four games with a fractured foot. He caught just 13 passes on 23 targets. On the bright side, he did show flashes of the athleticism that made him an appealing prospect, especially late in the season.

2019 outlook

The Ravens have many decisions to make here, and they’ve been projected to use their first-round pick on Ole Miss wide receiver D.K. Metcalf in several early mock drafts.

Brown is a free agent and said he’d be happy to be back with the Ravens despite his reduced role down the stretch. After signing a one-year deal for 2018, however, he’ll look for longer-term security this time around. Would the Ravens offer a multiyear deal to a player who struggled to build on-field rapport with their young franchise quarterback?

Crabtree, meanwhile, has two years left on his deal, but the Ravens could save almost $5 million on their salary cap by cutting him. That seems the most likely scenario given the 31-year old’s diminished production over the past two seasons. The Ravens hoped they were signing a No. 1 receiver and red-zone maestro, but Crabtree was neither of those in 2018.

Snead seems likely to be back as a key third-down target for Jackson. Ravens coach John Harbaugh has consistently praised his assertive playing style. Moore, an important special-teams contributor, will also be in the mix.

At tight end, the Ravens hope they found a pair of long-term receiving threats in Andrews and Hurst. Andrews showed as much star potential as any rookie pass catcher they’ve trotted out in the past decade. Boyle and Williams are both free agents who’ve expressed interest in returning, and the Ravens seem likely to sign at least one of the two, given their need for a high-end blocker in offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s run-first attack.

Free-agent options

Even with the expectation that the Ravens will use a high draft pick on a wide receiver, they’ll probably sign at least one more on the open market. The pickings are fairly slim as of now. Only four free-agent receivers surpassed Brown’s 715 yards in 2018 and none surpassed 1,000 yards.

Former Philadelphia Eagle Golden Tate is one of the league’s best possession receivers, and former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Adam Humphries is another appealing option in that category, coming off a 76-catch season. Add Cole Beasley, who caught 65 passes for the Dallas Cowboys in 2018, to the list of slot-receiver possibilities.

Of the downfield threats, former Los Angeles Charger Tyrell Williams probably has the most upside despite the fact that he played a secondary role behind Keenan Allen last season. Brown could also draw plenty of interest given his performance when Flacco was at quarterback.

Former New England Patriots Chris Hogan and Cordarrelle Patterson are also options.

The Houston Texans recently released Demaryius Thomas, who was genuine star a few years back but tore his Achilles tendon in 2018. Former Green Bay Packer Randall Cobb is another ex-star whose production floundered because of injuries in 2018.

The biggest name who could move is seven-time Pro Bowl selection Antonio Brown, who has demanded a trade from the Pittsburgh Steelers. But it’s not clear how much Brown would cost or whether the Steelers would even entertain trading him to their archrival.

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