INDIANAPOLIS — The top wide receivers in the 2017 NFL draft class will be on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium on day four of the NFL scouting combine Saturday. However, the biggest development in the Ravens' quest to add a quality pass-catching target for quarterback Joe Flacco might have already occurred.
The New York Jets confirmed Friday that they have released wide receiver Brandon Marshall, a move that continues their veteran purge and adds another high-end wide receiver to the free-agent class. The Ravens' level of interest in the six-time Pro Bowl selection isn't yet clear. However, the expectation is that they'll at least explore the possibility of adding Marshall to a thin receiving group.
"I think it's a great place for him, it's a great fit," former Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. told The Baltimore Sun on Friday. Smith is at the scouting combine in his new analyst role with the NFL Network. "I think any free agent that has an opportunity to play in Baltimore, I tell them to take it."
Smith is friends with Marshall and said the two spoke recently. Much of the conversation was about "other things that we both have going on that overlap each other," but Smith acknowledged they discussed potential landing spots for Marshall.
The 32-year-old Marshall fits the mold of the "complementary" wide receiver that general manager Ozzie Newsome is looking to add, and is also similar to the veteran pass catchers that have had success with the Ravens in the latter stages of their careers.
Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin and Smith are among the receivers who have had productive stints with the Ravens after establishing themselves with other organizations. If the price is reasonable and the Ravens are comfortable with Marshall's off-field history, which includes several domestic-violence-related incidents, he could become the latest receiver to get that opportunity.
Despite catching only 59 balls for 788 yards and three touchdowns last season on a bad and quarterback-challenged Jets team, Marshall is a proven commodity with 941 career receptions. He is just one year removed from a season in which he made 109 catches for 1,502 yards and 14 touchdowns.
At 6 feet 4 and 230 pounds, he's a big, physical receiver who can work the middle of the field and other intermediate areas. His size and skill set would fit nicely with the current top receivers on the Ravens' depth chart: Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore, who all profile more as deep threats. However, Wallace expanded his repertoire this past season en route to 72 receptions for 1,017 yards and four touchdowns.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said at a news conference Wednesday on the first day of the scouting combine that he expects Wallace, who has a 2017 option in his contract that needs to be addressed by March 9, to return next season. He also expressed confidence in the continued improvement of Perriman and Moore.
However, he acknowledged the reality that the Ravens need to find more playmakers on offense. Smith is retiring after a season in which he finished first on the team in touchdowns (five), second in receiving yards (799) and third in receptions (70). Kamar Aiken, who had 29 catches in 2016 after a breakout 75-catch 2015 season, also is headed to free agency.
That leaves the Ravens with just five receivers on their current roster and Wallace is the only one of them who has started more than one game in his NFL career.
For his responsibilities with the NFL Network, Smith has studied many of the draft-eligible wide receivers. The consensus is the top three players in the class are Clemson's Mike Williams, Washington's John Ross and Western Michigan's Corey Davis. Williams is known for his physicality and ability to win jump balls, Ross is a burner and Davis is a refined route runner.
"I work like I'm the worst receiver in the draft, but my confidence is up there and I know I'm that top guy," said Davis, who won't participate in the combine after having ankle surgery six weeks ago.
Beyond the top three is plenty of depth. Smith said he's impressed with the receiver class, but acknowledged that it isn't easy for any NFL team to count immediately on rookie wideouts.
"They obviously have spots that they need to reload [at] with me retiring and you're not sure what's going to happen with Kamar," Smith said. "You need some experience. Yes, they may draft somebody, but with drafting, that doesn't always equal out to immediate results. They have some young guys now, so getting anybody with some experience helps."
The Ravens have some salary cap flexibility and room to create more, but with less money than most teams and myriad needs, they are not equipped to win a bidding war for top free-agent wide receivers. That could mean that Alshon Jeffery, Terrelle Pryor, Kenny Stills and perhaps even former Washington Redskin Pierre Garcon, who Smith also said would be a good addition for the Ravens, are out of their range.
Marshall could be a cheaper alternative depending on how much interest he attracts around the league, and what his thoughts are about playing in Baltimore. Like Mason and Smith, Marshall is an outspoken, strong-willed guy. The Ravens have a reputation for encouraging players to be themselves and not trying to stifle them. Smith, one of the league's biggest lightning rods during his career, praised Newsome and Harbaugh on several occasions for the freedom they give players.
"I think he'd be able to handle any situation and I think he understands what to do, how to operate," Smith said of Marshall. "He's a mature man now."
Baltimore's proximity to New York also might help in the recruiting process. Marshall is active in the media and is a commentator for Showtime's "Inside the NFL" show, which is filmed in New York. The Ravens green-lighted Smith to travel on certain days off to fulfill media obligations, so there's no reason to believe they wouldn't approve of Marshall doing the same.
Ultimately, though, the Ravens' potential pursuit of Marshall would need owner Steve Bisciotti's blessing. Marshall was arrested three times for domestic violence incidents earlier in his career. Following the Ray Rice fallout, team officials have stated that they wouldn't add a player with domestic violence in his past.
However, it isn't clear how they'd view Marshall's situation. He was diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder in 2011. In recent years, he has become one of the league's biggest advocates for mental health issues while working to address and correct problems that he had earlier in his career.