When Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense caught fire during the 2012 postseason, a big spark was the play of a pair of pass-catchers over the middle. With the Ravens often going three-wide with tight end Dennis Pitta in the slot, Flacco had a lot of success targeting Pitta and burly slot receiver Anquan Boldin.
Last season, the Ravens were missing that element of their offense and it cost them. They traded Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers and then lost Pitta, expected to pick up more of the slack, in training camp.
One of their primary focuses this offseason is making sure that void is filled in 2014. They took care of the first step this week, keeping Pitta, a savvy route-runner with reliable hands, around with a five-year contract extension. The next step will be finding a slot receiver who can move the chains on third down.
The Ravens are on record as saying that they are confident they will be able to find the type of receiver they are looking for -- and that profile sounds a lot like Boldin.
There is an abundance of talented wide receivers in May’s NFL draft, and at pick No. 17, the Ravens still should have plenty of worthwhile options to choose from. And if they choose to address that need in free agency, there are a few intriguing options there as well.
Julian Edelman, who could wind up back with the New England Patriots, headlines the list of slot receivers. He didn’t always line up in the slot last season, but when he did, he was very efficient, catching 74 percent of the passes thrown his way, according to Pro Football Focus. That ranked fourth among qualifying NFL wide receivers.
Also hitting free agency are a few other wide receivers who ranked in the top 25 in receiving yards from the slot. Boldin was scheduled to be one of those players, but the 49ers have re-signed him. You can also scratch Doug Baldwin off the list, as he is a restricted free agent and highly unlikely to leave the Seattle Seahawks.
But Jerricho Cotchery of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jason Avant of the Philadelphia Eagles, Eric Decker of the Denver Broncos and Dexter McCluster of the Kansas City Chiefs are players who did a lot of damage in the slot last season.
Emmanuel Sanders of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Golden Tate of the Seattle Seahawks are two other names to consider among the top free agents on the market, though they might be out of the Ravens’ price range. They did not play in the slot a lot last season, but they have been effective during their careers when asked to play that role.
So which of these receivers fit the mold of what the Ravens are looking for? They are not publicly disclosing that. Just know that finding a slot receiver to pair with Pitta over the middle should be a priority for them.