The Ravens, one of the NFL's top drafting teams, have struggled in one area: Selecting wide receivers.
Of the 16 wide receivers drafted by the Ravens, none have eclipsed 70 catches in a season or 1,000 yards for the team. They have tried to find targets that can stretch the field everywhere from the first round (Travis Taylor and Mark Clayton) to the seventh (Derek Abney and Justin Harper).
They've selected big receivers (Clarence Moore at 6 feet 6) and smaller ones (Patrick Johnson at 5 feet 11). They've searched for deep threats at big-time schools (Florida, Oklahoma and Notre Dame) and at programs many didn't know existed (Southwest Louisiana, Northern Arizona and Norfolk State).
As the Ravens head into next week's draft looking for another wide receiver — perhaps as early as the second round — team officials believe they're in the best position ever to develop one. In the Ravens' estimation, it's not all about finding the right wide receiver; it's about finding the right quarterback.
"It really has a lot to do with the relationship between the quarterback and the receiver and how those guys work together," said Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' director of player personnel. "That's the thing you admire about a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning. They're able to develop those relationships with those young receivers quickly."
DeCosta added, "That's going to be challenge moving forward is to develop some young receivers in Baltimore and long-term have that kind of relationship with Joe [Flacco]."
In New England, Brady has succeeded with the likes of Troy Brown (eighth-round pick), Wes Welker (undrafted) and Deion Branch (second round). In Indianapolis, Manning has orchestrated a top-ranked passing attack with Pierre Garcon (sixth round) and Austin Collie (fourth round). In fact, the only 1,000-yard season ever recorded by a receiver drafted by the Ravens came with Manning throwing the ball to him (Brandon Stokley in 2004).
Now, with Flacco entering his fourth season, the time seems right for young receivers to start developing in his offense. While the top two wide receivers in the draft (Georgia's A.J. Green and Alabama's Julio Jones) are probably going to be taken in the top 10, there is plenty of value in the second, third and fourth rounds.
In a conference call this week, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said the top receivers in the second tier are: Boise State's Titus Young (1,215 yards last season), Miami's Leonard Hankerson (13 touchdowns last season) and Maryland's Torrey Smith (15.7 yards per catch last season).
Kiper's "wild cards" are Pittsburgh's Jonathan Baldwin (has size at 6 feet 4) and Kentucky's Randall Cobb (explosive after the catch). His sleeper is Abilene Christian's Edmund Gates (his 40-yard time at the combine was 4.3 seconds).
General manager Ozzie Newsome already said the Ravens plan to use one of their nine draft picks next week on a wide receiver.
"We've done a good job of stacking the board with some guys that have some size, some guys that have some unique quickness about them and some guys have just got flat-out speed," Newsome said. "It's a very good board for receivers this year."
The Ravens are looking to add some youth to a wide receiver group whose starters (Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason) are both 30 or older. They'll also need depth because T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte' Stallworth aren't expected to be re-signed. There is a possibility that David Reed, a fifth-round pick from a year ago, could compete for the No. 3 wide receiver spot.
If there is one quality that the Ravens are looking for in a receiver, director of college scouting Joe Hortiz pointed at playmaking ability.
"You want a guy who, when it's third-and-7, he's open and he catches it," Hortiz said. "And those guys do it in all different shapes and sizes. There is not a physical quality, other than speed is speed. It's hard to cover speed."
In the past five drafts, the Ravens have only used one pick in the first three rounds on a wide receiver, and that was on Yamon Figurs (who was more of a returner) in 2007. And there are no guarantees that the Ravens will use a selection on a wide receiver early in this draft.
"I think if you look at the contributions of rookie wide-outs throughout the past couple years, there are guys in the fifth round [who have made an impact]," Hortiz said. "[Sixth-round pick] Antonio Brown last year made a big contribution for Pittsburgh against us. There are lesser guys, in terms of where they're drafted, that can make an impact. It's just in terms of how they pick things up, how they're coming in, working and acclimating to the pro game. But I definitely think there are guys in that second — and even the third — tier of wide-outs that will be able to come in and help their draft team."
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