Under head coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens haven’t been afraid to throw rookie wide receivers right into the fire.
Torrey Smith started 14 of 16 regular-season games in his rookie season in 2011. Marlon Brown was an undrafted free agent and started 12 games as a rookie in 2013. If first-round pick Breshad Perriman proves worthy of a starting role in training camp, there’s little doubt he’ll be lined up across from Steve Smith for the Ravens’ Sept. 13 regular-season opener against the Denver Broncos.
But the good news for the Ravens is that they won’t have to rush Perriman into that role, assuming other options like Brown and Kamar Aiken continue to make significant strides. They had little choice in 2011 with Torrey Smith because Lee Evans, who was supposed to take some of the pressure off Anquan Boldin, showed up in Baltimore with a bad wheel and not much left in the tank. In 2013, Brown had to play a major role after the Ravens never replaced the traded Boldin and other options, like Jacoby Jones, Brandon Stokley, Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson, couldn’t stay healthy or make a consistent impact.
While the current Ravens lack a proven veteran starter to pair with Smith, they do have more youthful depth at wide receiver than they’ve had in the recent past. Brown and Aiken covet bigger roles. Michael Campanaro (River Hill) should be in line for increased snaps if he can stay healthy.
Don’t misunderstand: Perriman’s downfield speed is something that the Ravens sorely need. To have a successful season, Perriman has to make an impact. But what the Ravens won’t need to do is put too much on the rookie early. They should have the luxury to let Perriman grow into his role and put him into positions where he’ll be able to succeed.
In discussing the Ravens’ plans to fill the void at returner left by Jones’ departure, special teams coordinator and associate head coach Jerry Rosburg made a point to say that he’s not looking for just a return specialist.
“That’s not enough value to the roster,” Rosburg said last week. “It doesn’t help the team enough.”
That’s an important point to remember when we begin to dissect the roster chances of certain players, including undrafted free agent wide receiver DeAndre Carter. Gameday roster spots are much too valuable these days to carry a guy who only has value in the return game. That’s essentially what Jones morphed into last year when he tumbled down the wide receiver depth chart, but he was a proven Pro Bowl returner who was a threat to score whenever he got his hands on the ball.
The Ravens don’t have anybody with his return credentials who deserves that benefit of the doubt. In the current NFL, many of the league’s kickers and punters are capable of nullifying return games with directional kicking or just booting it out of the end zone. That’s why it makes even less sense than before to carry a return specialist.
Sure, return skills could boost the roster chances of players like Carter, Campanaro, cornerback Asa Jackson and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Ultimately though, those players are going to have to stand out on either offense or defense to make the team.
It is interesting that veteran Steve Smith has been catching some punts in practice. Smith has six career return touchdowns and he made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist early in his career. However, he hasn’t returned a kick since 2010.
My guess is that the Ravens are just exploring all their options and they’d only put him back there as the “designated fair catcher,” a role that Lardarius Webb has filled in the past. Smith is far too valuable on offense to risk him taking needless hits on special teams.
The Ravens are still a little more than $7 million under the salary cap, which could be significant in the weeks ahead. They still could probably use another pass rusher, and they’ll never shy away from adding another defensive back, but the Ravens don’t have any gaping holes right now. Anything that they’d add would be more of a luxury than a necessity.
However, that won’t stop general manager Ozzie Newsome from trying to strengthen his roster heading into training camp, and he has enough salary cap space to do it. I’m not aware of anything imminent, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Newsome made one more addition before the cap roster is set.
As proven this past week when tight end Tim Wright and All-Pro guard Evan Mathis were suddenly let go, quality players are still becoming available. The Ravens' need for a tight end dissipated when they drafted Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle, and Wright was claimed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As good as Mathis is, the Ravens really don’t need a guard. The bet here is somebody will become available over the next five or six weeks who the Ravens are interested in.
One player that remains available is former Ravens safety Jeromy Miles, who started two games on defense last season and was one of the team’s core special teams players. I’m not sure what Miles is looking for in terms of contract or fit, but it’s surprising that he’s still unemployed. He’s 27 years old, he’s a serviceable reserve safety and he’d improve whatever special teams unit that he joined.