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To draft a receiver or not? Ravens again face question that has vexed franchise

No one savaged the pick at the time.

In fact, Travis Taylor was the exact type of prospect on whom Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome would build his reputation — a highly productive star and captain from one of the top college programs in the country at Florida.

Little did anyone guess that instead of becoming the team’s first homegrown superstar at wide receiver, Taylor would launch the most frustrating subplot in the Ravens’ otherwise celebrated draft history.

Eighteen years later, as Newsome prepares to run his final draft in Baltimore, he’s still searching for that elusive No. 1 wideout, a Julio Jones or Antonio Brown to take Joe Flacco’s throws and spin them into big-play gold.

Over his 22 drafts with the Ravens, Newsome has picked 25 wide receivers. A few of those turned out well (Brandon Stokley in the fourth round in 1999) or very well (Torrey Smith in the second round in 2011). But the group includes three of the most disappointing first-round picks in team history in Taylor (10th overall in 2000), Mark Clayton (22nd overall in 2005) and Breshad Perriman (26th overall in 2015). None of the three produced a single 1,000-yard season in Baltimore. And the Ravens have struggled just as badly beyond the first round. Remember Patrick Johnson (42nd overall in 1998)? Or Yamon Figurs (74th overall in 2007)?

It’s not as if there’s any clear pattern, either. The Ravens have missed on speedsters and underneath threats, small-college stars and All-Americans from the Power 5 conferences.

This history will be at the forefront of fans’ minds again Thursday as they alternately root for the Ravens to snare a receiver and fear what might happen if the team does just that.

“I guess what would scare me about them taking a wide receiver is just how bad Ozzie has been at drafting wide receivers,” said Ross Tucker, a former NFL offensive lineman and host of the Ross Tucker Football Podcast. “It’s amazing. If you really look at it critically over the last 20 years, I think he’s been the best drafter in the NFL. I think the Ravens and Ozzie have been the best and yet here we are and for whatever reason, they have not been able to draft wide receivers. It’s like a blind spot.”

Draft pundits generally regard this year’s wide receiver class as subpar at the top, without a clear star in the bunch. That’s a mixed blessing for the Ravens, because it means they’ll likely have a chance to take one of the top two receivers — Calvin Ridley of Alabama and DJ Moore of Maryland — with the No. 16 overall pick. But it’s not clear either of those players would return ideal production for a mid-first-round pick.

“I think it's a little bit early for either of them at 16; they're more 20- to 30-type players,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said.

If the Ravens do pick a receiver at 16, Mayock said he’d lean toward Moore over the more touted, more polished Ridley.

“Ridley is an outside guy only, even though he runs great routes and his acceleration and burst is tremendous. At 188 pounds or whatever he is, I struggle with him inside,” he said. “I think DJ Moore has a little bit more versatility, plus he's a return guy. … You lost [Michael] Campanaro, your punt returner. This kid might not give you as much early because he's a little bit raw, but he's built like a running back. When he gets the ball in his hands, he's special.”

Tucker spoke glowingly of Moore, noting how productive he was despite the remarkable run of injuries that ravaged the Maryland quarterback corps. Tucker also believes Ridley is NFL-ready and said he wouldn’t regard either player as a reach at the No. 16 spot.

“I’m not a big believer in the ‘too high’ thing,” Tucker said. “If that’s a guy you really like and it’s obviously a position of need, I’m not a big believer in trying to get cute and move down four or five or six spots to still get the guy. I don’t think that’s too high for Ridley or DJ Moore if those are the guys they like. That wouldn’t bother me at all. What happens is there’s public pressure because mock drafts have them going lower. So then people say, ‘Oh, they could’ve traded down and still gotten him.’ Well, you don’t know that. … The most important thing is to get the guy you want.”

If the Ravens draft another position in the first round, they’ll likely still have appealing receiver options on day two, whether you like quick, slot receiver prospect Christian Kirk out of Texas A&M, ultra-productive James Washington out of Oklahoma State, 6-foot-3 Courtland Sutton out of SMU or Mel Kiper favorite Anthony Miller out of Memphis.

Newsome pledged to revamp the team’s receiving corps after last season, when no Raven ranked among the league’s top 30 in catches, receiving yards or receiving touchdowns. He’s already done that in free agency, signing Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead to replace Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin and Campanaro (River Hill). But one or more of those players could be short-term solutions rather than stalwarts, so analysts still expect Newsome to draft a receiver.

If he finds a standout from this year’s pool, it would be his first since he picked Smith out of Maryland in 2011.

To be fair, NFL teams have generally struggled to draft star receivers in recent years. Of the 13 selected in the first round over the past three drafts, only the Oakland Raiders’ Amari Cooper — like Ridley, a standout at Alabama — has made any significant splash.

Talent evaluators offer all manner of reasons for this, arguing that developing wideouts receive poor instruction in route running, face lax coverages in college and play in offenses that demand little variety of skill.

Nonetheless, Newsome said judging college receivers is no more difficult than projecting players at other positions into an NFL environment.

“Well, I don’t know if it’s that much of a difference,” he said. “If you look at offensive linemen, they don’t even get in a three-point stance in college, and you look at pass rushers, they don’t play the run. So, at every position, there’s something that’s going to be different as they get to the league.”

Though the Ravens are loathe to tip their hand, assistant general manager Eric DeCosta, who will succeed Newsome after this season, hardly gushed when asked about the 2018 wide receivers during the team’s annual predraft news conference.

“I think that the wide receiver class … Is there a Julio Jones in this draft? I don’t know,” he said. “We didn’t think there was an Antonio Brown when Antonio Brown was selected. So, you never know.”

Fans have centered their frustration on players the Ravens have picked — most notably Perriman, who has never translated his scintillating workout speed into game action — but also on players the team has passed over. For example, as the second round unfolded last year, many wanted Newsome to pick JuJu Smith-Schuster, a productive, high-profile pass catcher out of Southern California.

Instead, he went for linebacker Tyus Bowser, and Smith-Schuster fell to the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers, a team already awash in outstanding receivers. Sure enough, Smith-Schuster made All-Rookie, while Bowser struggled to get onto the field late in the season.

Though Newsome and DeCosta stand by their defense-heavy 2017 draft, DeCosta acknowledged the Ravens have not taken many high-risk, high-reward stabs at receivers.

“You’ve got to swing,” he said. “We probably haven’t swung as much, quite honestly, for a lot of different reasons. I think that the receiver position and skill players in general, what I see is a sense of inflation where the league, the value of the skill players has been affected by inflation. Players are getting drafted probably higher than where we actually see their skill levels necessarily being.”

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