As the Ravens enter another long offseason searching for a formula to return to the playoffs, no position ranks higher on their wish list than receiver.
The elusive No. 1 wideout has become a Holy Grail for the franchise, especially as fans and coaches look longingly at the embarrassment of playmaking riches assembled by the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers. That comparison stung all season as JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was still available when the Ravens picked in the second round in April, developed into the NFL’s best rookie receiver.
“I do not think it is any secret that we need to add playmakers to the mix,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said at his season-ending news conference.
The Ravens face another reset at the position after a season of uneven play from No. 1 deep threat Mike Wallace, disappointing production from free-agent signee Jeremy Maclin and near-obsolescence from former first-round pick Breshad Perriman. The team also failed to create a significant role for running back Danny Woodhead, who was expected to be the chief underneath target but saw his season derailed by a debilitating hamstring injury.
No Raven finished the season in the league’s top 30 in catches, receiving yards or receiving touchdowns.
The group’s future is cloudy, with Wallace and Michael Campanaro approaching free agency, Maclin and Woodhead looking like potential cap-saving cuts and Perriman running out of chances to convince Ravens coaches he can play.
Only second-year receiver Chris Moore, who blossomed first as an excellent special teams player and then as a more regular target for quarterback Joe Flacco, seems guaranteed to be a significant part of the team’s plans for 2018.
“I see the same thing everybody sees,” Harbaugh said. “We have to build that thing up to where it’s great. I have no problem with the guys themselves. I think the guys themselves competed like crazy and did everything they could to be as good as they can be. The passing game wasn’t where it needed to be.”
It didn’t help, Harbaugh noted, that Flacco, Perriman and Woodhead all missed training camp because of injuries. The passing attack was more productive and less error-prone as the Ravens went 5-2 down the stretch and fell one win short of a wild-card berth. Even in that stretch, however, the Ravens connected on precious few deep strikes or long catch-and-run scores.
“That’s a tough starting point,” Harbaugh said, reflecting on the preseason injuries. “But I want to start in a way better place next year than we did this year. I think the personnel part of the wide receiver position is a big part of that.”
For their part, the receivers have said they’d like to return as a group.
“Of course,” Perriman said. “We created a bond together like no other. My teammates, they’re really kind of like my brothers. We go to war with each other and we put it on the line for each other. We just came so close.”
Wallace defended the group’s talents.
“You can never have too many playmakers, ever,” the nine-year veteran said. “But the fact that [people say] we did not have enough, that is ridiculous. I think it is crazy. Guys did not make as many plays as they want to make, but we have a lot of guys.”
Moore said he’s eager to build on his first burst of NFL success, which included 12 catches over the last six games and a clutch 87-yard kickoff return in the season closer.
“My body’s ready to work and get ready for a game this week,” Moore said as he cleaned out his locker earlier this month. “So it sucks. But I’m ready for next season and ready for better things.”
The Ravens thought they’d sufficiently bolstered their receiving corps in the offseason, when they signed Maclin, who made the Pro Bowl in 2014, and Woodhead, who caught 80 passes out of the backfield in 2015.
Their upgrades looked good out of the gate when Woodhead caught three passes on the first drive of the season and Maclin broke a 48-yard catch-and-run touchdown later in the same half.
But injuries quickly derailed the plan. Woodhead hurt his hamstring on that initial drive and didn’t return until Week 11. Maclin missed Weeks 6 and 7 because of a shoulder injury.
Maclin returned to become the most effective receiver on the roster in the games immediately before the team’s mid-November bye week. But he never seemed on the same page as Flacco after the break and missed the last two games of the season because of a knee injury.
In the end, Maclin’s numbers with the Ravens — 12 starts, 40 catches on 72 targets, a career-worst 11 yards per catch — did not improve on the disappointing 2016 production that led to his release from the Kansas City Chiefs.
Given that and the $5 million in salary-cap space the Ravens could save by cutting him before March 14, Maclin might not be long for Baltimore.
Woodhead could also be cut given his recent injury and modest production down the stretch. But the Ravens would save just $1.8 million with that move.
Meanwhile, the team faces free-agent decisions on Wallace and Campanaro.
Wallace led the team in receiving yards each of the past two seasons, and he’s a well-loved leader in the locker room. But he also struggled with drops this year, most notably in the Ravens’ season-ending loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
“Do I hope?” he said of re-signing with the Ravens. “Yes. But I expect nothing. You just go and you live your life and be the best person you can be and hope that things work out. It is football. You can never just expect anything. I don’t, anyway. At the same time, I love it here. Like I said, this team, these coaches, they just gave me the love for the game back at a time when it was dark. If they will have me, I will definitely come back.”
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Campanaro (River Hill), meanwhile, has grown into a solid punt returner if not a steady receiving threat.
No player symbolizes the Ravens’ receiver frustrations more than Perriman, the 2015 first-round pick who caught just 10 passes this year and was a healthy scratch in four of the team’s last seven games. Coaches expressed great optimism about Perriman going into training camp, only for his progress to be halted by a hamstring injury. When he returned, his unreliable hands and inability to shake opposing defensive backs sent him plummeting down the team’s depth chart.
Perriman was inactive for the must-win season finale against the Bengals, behind rookie Quincy Adeboyejo, who’d never played in an NFL game.
“You want to be out there for any game,” Perriman said as he cleaned out his locker the next day. “But just for that last game, it being possibly the biggest game of the season, which it really was … you feel like you really could have been out there making plays and contributing in some way. It definitely hurt deep.”
He spoke of working more doggedly than ever on the fundamentals of route running and catching the ball securely. And even though Ravens coaches have stopped predicting he’s on the cusp of a breakout, Perriman said he wants to be in Baltimore next season.
Certainly, teammates and coaches remain fond of him as a person.
“I feel like it’s really all up to me where I go,” he said. “And I don’t have a doubt in my mind of where I’m going.”