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Ravens free-agency preview: Given the talent in draft, patience at wide receiver could be rewarded

When NFL free agency officially opens next Wednesday, the Ravens, in keeping with tradition, will be looking for help at wide receiver.

While quarterback Lamar Jackson led the league in passing touchdowns and earned Most Valuable Player honors last season, it was the team’s tight ends, not the receivers, who powered the NFL’s most efficient aerial attack. Ravens officials know that Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Willie Snead IV can’t do it by themselves in 2020.

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As free agency nears, The Baltimore Sun will take a look at the Ravens’ options at several positions of need, from the players they probably can’t afford to those they can. At wide receiver, general manager Eric DeCosta faces a difficult decision: Pick from a limited free-agent class this month, or add reinforcements through the draft next month?

Breaking the bank: Dallas Cowboys’ Amari Cooper, Cincinnati Bengals’ A.J. Green, New York Jets’ Robby Anderson and San Francisco 49ers’ Emmanuel Sanders

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Cooper is going to get big money from someone, most likely the Cowboys. He’s only 25 and has nearly 2,000 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns in 25 games with Dallas. Cincinnati plans to designate Green with the franchise tag, according to ESPN, unless it can sign the 31-year-old to a long-term extension. Future Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow will need all the help he can get.

If Cooper and Green are retained before free agency starts, Anderson stands to benefit. He reportedly wants more than $10 million per year annually, and a bidding war could drive his price up significantly. Sanders is a durable and productive receiver with great hands and route-running savvy. He also turns 33 this week, an age that could make even a shorter-term deal worth about $10 million annually hard to stomach.

Within budget: Ravens’ Seth Roberts, Cowboys’ Randall Cobb, Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Breshad Perriman, Indianapolis Colts’ Devin Funchess, Philadelphia Eagles’ Nelson Agholor, Kansas City Chiefs’ Demarcus Robinson, Tennessee Titans’ Tajae Sharp and New England Patriots’ Phillip Dorsett

Roberts became fast friends with Jackson last year, but career-low receiving totals (21 catches for 271 yards) and a forgettable playoff performance could lead the Ravens to look elsewhere for help.

Cobb, the standout of the position’s middle tier, is projected to have a market value of $7.1 million per year, according to salary database Spotrac. He had a career-high 15.1 yards per catch last season with Dallas, and 55 receptions for 828 yards overall, but the Ravens’ renewed investment in fellow slot receiver Snead signals some satisfaction at the position.

After a 645-yard season with the Buccaneers, Perriman is undoubtedly the most polarizing potential target. His speed would certainly play well in Baltimore. But it’s hard to envision a return; coach John Harbaugh was right when he suggested the Ravens’ top draft pick in 2015 needed a “fresh start” elsewhere.

The class’ other big names have significant warts. Funchess is coming off a season-ending collarbone injury. Agholor’s poor hands and effort have made the former first-round pick persona non grata in Philadelphia. Robinson had only modest production in a pass-happy Chiefs offense.

Potential fit: Whoever’s affordable before the draft, or whoever’s still worth signing after it

Unlike at, say, defensive tackle, there are not a lot of worthwhile free-agent options for the Ravens here this offseason. Perhaps that’s for the best.

With seven picks in the first four rounds of next month’s draft, including four of the top 106 selections overall, the Ravens can upgrade their wide receiver position with young, cheap, malleable talent. Even if they address another need with their first-round pick, there’s no shortage of playmakers. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said last month that 27 receivers he’s evaluated have a third-round grade or better, and ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has said he expects “at least” 25 receivers to be taken in the first three rounds.

“You’ve probably heard every GM and coach talk about this wide receiver class; it’s a good one,” New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas said at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis last month. “Just watching them go across the stage, there’s a lot of talented players, and we see how much the pass game affects the National Football League. So we do feel good about this group. … There are some really good wide receivers in this class.”

The abundance of rookie talent could depress wide receiver spending leaguewide. The best players will still be signed by the first week of free agency, and even someone with Agholor’s inconsistencies won’t last long on the open market.

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But a freeze could take hold in the weeks thereafter. Perhaps a lower-level receiver like former Bears speedster Taylor Gabriel or oft-injured Jets receiver Demaryius Thomas will still be unclaimed. Maybe other targets will join them; the Oakland Raiders released Roberts in early April, and the Ravens signed him a few days later. The Chiefs’ Sammy Watkins and the Dolphins’ Albert Wilson, who had a career-high 43 catches last season at age 27 after missing most of 2018 with a hip injury, could be cap casualties.

For what Jackson needs and DeCosta can afford, it should be a buyer’s market.

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