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Ravens' pass catchers face uncertain offseason as they search for chemistry with Lamar Jackson

John Brown’s 2018 season peaked less than three months ago.

Joe Flacco threw seven passes his way during a tense battle with the New Orleans Saints. Brown caught all seven for 134 yards and a touchdown.

He’d bet on himself by signing a one-year contract in the offseason, and after seven weeks, he was the leading face of a fresh, thriving wide-receiver corps. With a per-catch average of 19.9 yards, Brown was the most exciting deep threat Flacco had worked with in at least four years. Two weeks after that Oct. 21 showcase, however, his season would take a drastic turn, one that would quickly make the 134-yard game feel like ancient history.

You would never have known it from listening to Brown talk as he prepared to clear out his locker the day after the Ravens’ season-closing playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

“This was the most fun I’ve had in my career,” he said.

He’d caught two passes on three targets for 14 yards in the playoff defeat. And it wasn’t as if that line was an anomaly. In eight games with rookie Lamar Jackson at quarterback, Brown caught 10 passes on 33 targets and averaged 12.8 yards per catch. His dip in production became exhibit A of the Ravens’ philosophical shift after Jackson replaced the injured Flacco. They went from a pass-first offense to the most run-heavy attack the NFL had seen in decades, and they won doing it.

It’s an open question how much we can guess about the Ravens’ future based on those eight games. We know Jackson will be the quarterback going forward and that John Harbaugh elevated Greg Roman — the architect of the team’s creative running schemes — to offensive coordinator after the season. But we also know Harbaugh and Jackson have been adamant that the Ravens must throw more effectively in the future or risk grinding to a halt against the NFL’s ever-adapting defenses. Their inability to strike downfield hurt them badly against a Chargers defense designed to stymie Jackson at the line of scrimmage.

What does this all mean for Brown, a free agent seeking a multi-year deal, and for the rest of the team’s pass catchers? Former Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome re-designed the team’s receiving corps last offseason. Will his successor, Eric DeCosta, have to do it again over the next few months?

Brown suffered the most in the switch from Flacco to Jackson, but fellow wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead also saw far fewer chances over the last eight games. Like Brown, they remained gracious throughout, praising Jackson and earning kudos from Harbaugh for their embrace of less glamorous duties.

That does not guarantee these veteran receivers — all of whom have been stars at some point — will be happy serving as decoys and run blockers forever.

Crabtree, whom the Ravens signed to serve as their No. 1 receiver and chief red-zone threat, caught 41 passes on 76 targets in nine games with Flacco. With Jackson at quarterback, he caught 15 passes on 28 targets. Not since his rookie year had Crabtree finished a full season with totals lower than his 607 receiving yards and three touchdown catches for 2018.

Crabtree has two years left on the $21 million deal he signed, but the Ravens could save almost $5 million on their 2019 salary cap if they cut him before June 1. The veteran receiver did not talk to reporters the day after the season ended, so it’s unclear what he expects. But he seems unlikely to remain in the fold as the Ravens re-design their offense around Jackson.

Snead fared the best with Jackson, catching 20 passes on 32 targets compared to 45 catches on 69 targets with Flacco. That’s not surprising, because he thrives in the middle of the field where the rookie was most comfortable throwing. But Snead did go two whole games without seeing a single pass come his way.

The Ravens would save $4 million if they cut Snead, but given his affinity for Jackson and Harbaugh’s effusive praise for his confident, combative style, he seems more likely to remain on the roster than Crabtree. Snead did not sound like a man planning to go elsewhere after the loss to the Chargers.

“Our future is really bright,” he said. “With a year under his belt, I feel [Jackson] can come out and do the same thing, but even better. He’s going to get to grow, he’s got a lot of confidence. I think the future is really bright.”

Fourth receiver Chris Moore will almost certainly return for the final year of his rookie contract, but he’s arguably more valuable as a special-teams standout than as a featured pass catcher.

In contrast to the wide receivers, the Ravens’ tight ends became more essential to the team’s passing offense with Jackson.

Rookie Mark Andrews had earned Flacco’s trust, catching 21 passes on 32 targets from the veteran quarterback. But he did more on fewer chances with Jackson, catching 16 of 25 balls thrown his way and averaging an eye-popping 21.2 yards per reception.

If the last eight games were any indication, Andrews will be a featured weapon in the team’s future offense. It’s also notable that when Roman ran the San Francisco 49ers’ offense from 2011 to 2014, tight end Vernon Davis was one of the team’s most productive receivers (along with a younger version of Crabtree and former Raven Anquan Boldin).

That could also bode well for 2018 first-round pick Hayden Hurst, who never got fully untracked after he missed the beginning of his rookie season with a fractured foot. Hurst did deliver his two best receiving games with Jackson at quarterback.

Starting tight end Nick Boyle is a free agent as is Maxx Williams. Neither caught many passes with Jackson at quarterback, but both thrived as run blockers. With Hurst and Andrews both projected to shine more as receivers, the Ravens could re-sign either veteran.

Which brings us back to Brown, who said that financial particulars being equal, he’d love to stay in Baltimore, where he felt healthy and appreciated.

“I was able to be myself,” he said. “I was able to talk to the coaches when I wasn’t feeling right about certain things. It’s just the whole locker room, all the players, everyone was on the same page and communicated.”

It remains to be seen how much Brown’s unproductive stretch run will affect his market value. This year’s class of free-agent wide receivers is hardly star-studded, but Brown is now four years removed from his lone 1,000-yard season.

Is there a chance he could return to the Ravens at a modest price? Do they believe he could discover chemistry with Jackson given more time?

Those questions will help frame another offseason of uncertainty at a position that always seems to trouble the Ravens.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ChildsWalker

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