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Mike Preston: Ravens add Sammy Watkins, fight reality in pursuit of free-agent receivers | COMMENTARY

The charade is over. The Ravens can stop pretending to sign a top receiver in free agency.

It’s back to reality, and the best deal the Ravens could come up with was signing Sammy Watkins to a one-year contract reportedly worth $5 million.

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It’s the NFL’s version of a shotgun wedding.

Acquiring a receiver like the Pittsburgh Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster or the Indianapolis Colts’ T.Y. Hilton was a mirage, with all sides playing each other, and Watkins was the major bait. Both Smith-Schuster and Hilton remained with their respective teams, which left Watkins, the former Kansas City Chief, and Antonio Brown, the former Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver, as the only recognizable names left on the market.

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The Ravens were forced to dance with Watkins, the less risky signing of the two.

“No, he isn’t the answer,” said former Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe, a Hall of Famer and national talk show host on Fox Sports 1. “He couldn’t stay healthy in Buffalo and Kansas City, and now has lost a step.”

The Ravens couldn’t draw any top-level receivers.

“Lamar Jackson won the MVP and that year the Ravens had the best rushing attack in NFL history with more than 3,000 yards,” Sharpe said. “Every year he is going to be an MVP candidate because of his legs, so how can you convince a receiver if they ran for 3,000 yards, how many are they going to pass for? It’s hard to lure a receiver with that type of offense.

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“They are a run-first team. So what good receiver wants to come? If I am a No. 1 receiver and I accounted for 1,200 or 1,300 yards in my previous location, and then I get 800 in Baltimore, what is the first thing they are going to say? ‘He isn’t what I thought he was.’ These agents are smart guys. The Ravens have to fight the perception, and the reality.”

Shortly after the 2020 season, both coach John Harbaugh and general manager Eric DeCosta were confident they could sign a receiver. Neither said they had experienced any negative feedback from potential targets about Baltimore’s run-dominated offense.

But last season was different. In 2018, Jackson didn’t become the starter until midway through his rookie season. In 2019, he won the MVP award.

Jackson improved in 2020, but there wasn’t significant progress. The Ravens finished with the NFL’s top running game and worst passing offense. Once the season was over, receivers Willie Snead IV, Dez Bryant and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown were critical of the team’s passing offense.

Word gets around quickly, especially on social media.

“Whether it was Eric or John with what they were saying at their press conferences, coupled with the way Willie Snead, Holly Brown and Dez Bryant all took to social media, there was going to be a little backlash about what the Ravens want and do not want to do with their passing attack,” said former Ravens receiver Qadry Ismail, now a pro football television analyst.

“At the end of the day, big free agents get paid for catching the ball. It’s great you guys [Ravens] got your system, but if I am not getting targeted a gang of times, then I am just a glorified, small tight end, and that’s why people are going elsewhere.”

The Ravens reportedly offered Smith-Schuster a one-year contract worth $9 million, which was $1 million more than the Steelers’ offer, but he decided to stay in Pittsburgh. The Ravens reportedly offered Hilton a multiyear deal, but he is staying one more season in Indianapolis for $10 million.

You can imagine Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and Colts coach Frank Reich both sitting with their players and asking, “Do you really want to play in Baltimore and catch 40 to 45 passes a year, or stay here and catch maybe 90 to 100? Really.”

“With free agency, it’s like, ‘Hey, who is going to throw me the ball? Oh, I like their offense,’” Ismail said. “‘I like their quarterback and the guy on the other side because the pressure is not going to be all on me, and they are creative enough to allow me to function.’”

Sharpe agreed.

“Guys say all I want to do is win,” Sharpe said, “but I want to catch 14 passes for 152 yards and win, not three for 33 while the team wins running for 250 yards. That hurts your Madden rating. There are no Pro Bowls and no talk about being an All-Pro. People start talking about top receivers and nobody is looking at you.

“It’s a great feeling to get off the bus knowing I’m getting seven targets today. In Baltimore, I’m getting three.”

Of course, money is a factor, but it’s not all on the player’s end. One of the top receivers in free agency was the Detroit Lions’ Kenny Golladay, who signed a four-year, $72 million deal with the New York Giants. If you are the Ravens, how do you justify paying a receiver $18 million a year if he catches 58 passes for 800 yards? For that type of money, he should produce 1,200 to 1,300 yards and eight to 12 touchdowns.

In the opening stage of free agency, the Ravens have limited options. Maybe something might open up later if they are willing to trade Orlando “I am a left tackle” Brown Jr. Watkins was available, but he was used more as a ploy for DeCosta to bait other teams into signing him.

Ideally, the Ravens want a prototype, the big, physical, fast receiver on the outside who can get off press coverage. Hilton and Smith-Schuster would have been better fits than Watkins, whose durability is questionable.

“I don’t think size, as much as it is hyped, is as necessary as being able to get off one-on-one coverage and being able to run the full complement of routes in the entire offense,” Ismail said. “If you got big personnel on the field, you want to stop the run and force [Jackson] to throw, which means bringing up players in press coverage. I want guys who can get off press coverage like JuJu, and that should leave Hollywood Brown going over the top.”

Sharpe was more direct in his criticism of Watkins.

“He can’t stay healthy,” Sharpe said.

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Sharpe says the Ravens have to find their answer in the draft and might have to trade up from their No. 27 position in the first round to get a player such as LSU’s JaMarr Chase or Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle or DeVonta Smith. Sharpe wants a big receiver who can go up and win 50/50 balls. Several teams targeted a receiver in the first round last year, with the Dallas Cowboys selecting CeeDee Lamb and the Minnesota Vikings taking Justin Jefferson.

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Sharpe doesn’t think a team can win a championship these days without a good, effective passing game, and he would like to see Jackson throw more, which will help him grow as a quarterback.

“Hollywood isn’t going to win the 50/50 balls, too small,” Sharpe said. “[Devin] Duvernay ain’t winning those 50/50 balls. The Ravens need a Mike Evans, a Julio Jones type. Stefon Diggs isn’t big, but he wins those battles and look what he did for Josh Allen in Buffalo. I am on the outside looking in, but the Ravens are going to have to let Lamar throw more. It’s not how much you throw it, but can you make those throws in crunchtime? More times than not, he hasn’t been able to make those throws.

“But the only way he is going to become better is throw more. In the playoffs, teams take away what you are good at and make you beat them with your weakness. At the end of the day, they are going to have to give him more opportunities because I don’t think you can run your way to a championship anymore in this league. I think he is a better thrower than the Ravens give him credit for and just needs to become more consistent.”

Hopefully, the Ravens’ search in free agency has forced some of the young receivers to get better, such as Brown, Duvernay, James Proche II and Miles Boykin. Brown played well at the end of last season with improved route running. There were a lot of things the coaching staff liked about the young receivers, but not enough to stop them from signing Watkins, who has 321 catches for 4,665 yards and 33 touchdowns in seven seasons.

“You learn real quick in this league that the first year is written in pencil and can be erased,” Ismail said, “and everything after that is etched in stone. There are no more erasing of mistakes and you are being labeled who you are. These young players have to be praying for OTAs, a chance to get together and have a training camp. They need to get on the same page with Lamar in the passing game and show what they can do in the preseason games, which they didn’t have a chance to do last year.”

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