Ravens director of college scouting Joe Hortiz talks about the Ravens' needs aligning with the key positions of strengths in the upcoming NFL draft. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
Three times in their 21 drafts in Baltimore, the Ravens have spent a first-round pick on a wide receiver.
The first, Travis Taylor, was easily the most underwhelming top-10 pick in franchise history. The second, Mark Clayton, was only slightly more productive than Taylor. The third, Breshad Perriman, missed his rookie year with a knee injury and has yet to establish himself as an NFL starter.
Overall, the Ravens have spent 24 picks on wide receivers and only one of those — Torrey Smith at No. 58 overall in 2011 — was a significant success as a pass catcher in Baltimore.
Perriman still has time to change that. But the hunt for a No. 1 receiver to catch Joe Flacco's deep heaves has become one of the franchise's great unrequited quests. And that disappointing history looms large, because the Ravens could face another tantalizing opportunity to pick a wide receiver in this year's NFL Draft, which begins Thursday night.
Mike Williams of Clemson, John Ross of Washington and Corey Davis of Western Michigan all grade as mid-first-round talents. All have been linked to the Ravens in various mock drafts.
The 6-foot-3 Williams is a massive downfield target who showed his ability to win one-on-one battles in Clemson's national championship victory over Alabama. Ross set a modern NFL combine record by running the 40-yard dash in 4.22 seconds. And Davis is perhaps the sharpest route runner of the trio.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock fancies all three players and especially Ross and Williams as potential immediate contributors.
"If you look at the guys this year, I've made the point to everybody that those three top wideouts are all different styles, which I like," Mayock said on a conference call last week. "If you take the medical away from John Ross, he's going to make plays for you immediately, both in the kick game and the pass game. I don't think there is any doubt about that. Mike Williams I liked because he's clean, and I know what I'm getting. I'm getting a big bodies guy outside the numbers on back shoulder [routes]. Inside the numbers on slant. Red zone weapon. Put the ball in the end zone."
But all three players face significant questions as well — Williams about his technical polish, Ross about his durability after several surgeries and Davis about injuries that kept him out of pre-draft workouts.
For example, Sirius XM analyst and former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt does not see an immediate star in the bunch.
"I think this is a good overall wide receiver class. I think there's a lot of good players in there," Brandt said. "But there isn't anybody that really jumps out to me as a guy that's going to come in and catch a lot of passes, 80 to 85 passes or so, as we've had those types of guys in the past."
Given such skepticism, might the Ravens look to a surer thing at a less glamorous position?
At the Ravens' pre-draft press conference, general manager Ozzie Newsome — a Hall of Fame pass catcher in a previous life — teased a reporter who asked about the team's poor history with drafting wideouts.
"Are receivers the only position where I haven't drafted a guy that's been in the Pro Bowl? Is that true?" Newsome said. "I guess it is, so does that drive me to want to draft a receiver and have him go to the Pro Bowl? Would that be the last hurrah [and] once I do that I can ride off into the sunset and life would be good?"
But the position has been a vexing one for a front office that has drafted outstanding players at almost every other spot on the field.
It's not as if the Ravens are the only team struggling to find the next Odell Beckham or Julio Jones. NFL Draft history is littered with pass catchers who appeared to be remarkable blends of size, speed and leaping ability only to produce little against pro defenses.
For every Jones, there's a Charles Rogers. For every Beckham, there's a Justin Blackmon.
"The true franchise-type guys usually go very high in the draft, and they usually have a unique skill set," Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. "The Calvin Johnsons, the Julio Jones, those kinds of guys. They are usually the biggest guys, the most explosive guys. They usually have very strong hands. We kind of know that unless you have a bad team, you're probably not going to get that type of player in the draft. Those guys are rare, they are planet players. There's only a few of those guys on the planet."
Such androids aside, the position requires more experience and hard-won craft than many casual fans realize. Size and speed are the entry points, not the be-all and end-all.
"That's a position where you've got to play and play and play and learn the NFL style of offense," DeCosta said. "Coverages are much, much more tricky. I think the level of cornerbacks in the NFL is significant compared to college football, so that makes it tougher too. That all factors in."
Mayock said he thought the position had finally become easier to scout a few years ago, with a flood of physically imposing, well-schooled receivers flooding the draft. But then the 2015 and 2016 classes were full of injury woes — including Perriman's season-erasing ligament tear — and outright poor performances.
"Since that class in '14, the last two classes as far as immediate impact have been minor at best," he said. "So it looks like '14 was more of an aberration than a trend."
Because of their struggles drafting and developing top receivers, the Ravens have often turned to productive veterans such as Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin and most recently, Steve Smith Sr. Those stars produced great moments in Baltimore but were past the point of ranking among the NFL's very best.
That gap in the roster has become more glaring because the Ravens play two divisional games a year against superstar receivers A.J. Green and Antonio Brown. So fans are frequently left wondering how much better Flacco might be if paired with such a weapon.
Despite that perpetual frustration, Flacco and other current Ravens said the team doesn't necessarily need to add another receiver, either in the draft or by other means.
"No, I do not," Flacco said last week when asked if he thought such an addition was essential. "I think we have a lot of young, talented guys — guys that are ready to make a name for themselves and are going to work really hard this offseason to get that done."
Mike Wallace, the team's current top deep threat, said he expects second-year receiver Chris Moore to take a significant step forward. Which is not to say he'd be reluctant to help another rookie adjust to life as an NFL wideout.
"I think we have more than enough wide receivers, honestly, but you can always have more, and whoever comes here, we're going to welcome them with open arms," Wallace said. "I think people are sleeping on us a little bit, but we'll take whoever we can get, and if it's a first-round receiver, I'm all for it. I'll welcome him with open arms, and I'll be the first to get him on the JUGS machine and catching passes, and get some candy from him for the [meeting] room."