On Thursday, the Ravens will enter the first round of the NFL draft honoring the franchise’s most time-honored offseason tradition:
For most of the 23 years since the Ravens were established in Baltimore, the team has lacked a dominant, game-breaking wideout. And the front office has regularly acknowledged as much. Before the seminal 1996 draft that yielded Pro Football Hall of Fame talents Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis, Ozzie Newsome, then the Ravens’ director of football operations, identified receiver as a position of need.
The NFL is a cyclical league. And yet little has changed since. Come almost every late April, the narrative at the position is documented anew: The Ravens would like to take a receiver, probably early in the draft. But can they? And will they?
With the Ravens and first-year general manager Eric DeCosta considering taking a wide receiver at No. 22 overall — Mississippi’s D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown, Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown, Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler and Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry are top candidates — the franchise could potentially turn the page on its draft history.
If that sounds like the same old story, it is. The Baltimore Sun has been writing it for years.
Sun reporters and columnists have been finding new ways to describe the team’s wide receiver woes (and needs) for as long as the team has tried to address them.
1998: “The Ravens are determined to get a wide receiver during this weekend's NFL draft, and they will not be disheartened if they fail to land either the controversial Randy Moss or the ultra-talented Kevin Dyson.”
1999: “This much is clear. The Ravens, in dire need of a wide receiver to complement diminutive Pro Bowl player Jermaine Lewis, plan to select at least one in this weekend's NFL draft.”
2002: “The run on wide receivers should start early in Saturday's NFL draft, but the Ravens are confident that they can land a quality pass-catcher.”
2004: “These attempts to land an impact receiver represent the major disappointments on what has become a revered drafting resume. For a franchise that has prided itself on selecting a future Pro Bowl performer at nearly every position, the Ravens have dropped the ball when it comes to finding a wideout with the right speed, instincts and toughness.”
2005: “Taking an offensive lineman at this point would be less of a gamble than taking a receiver. The Ravens have been a graveyard for young receivers.”
2009: “Now that the 2009 NFL draft is history, it appears that one big blight on the Ravens' drafting record remains, as does a major need on their roster. The drafting problem can't be denied: They once again couldn't nab a big-time wide receiver.”
2010: “A review of the Ravens' draft history at wide receiver yields little more than a succession of what-ifs. Starting with Jermaine Lewis in their debut 1996 season, the Ravens have selected 15 wide receivers. Only one — Lewis, a fifth-round pick — went to the Pro Bowl, and he went twice as a return specialist, not as a receiver.”
2011: “The Ravens, one of the NFL's top drafting teams, have struggled in one area: Selecting wide receivers. They have tried to find targets that can stretch the field everywhere from the first round (Travis Taylor and Mark Clayton) to the seventh (Derek Abney and Justin Harper).”
2015: “Whenever it comes to selecting wide receivers in the NFL draft, the Ravens consistently have dropped the ball.”
2017: “The wide receiver position remains an elusive fix for Newsome. He has never drafted a wide receiver who went to the Pro Bowl.”
2018: “The Ravens’ litany of draft misses at receiver includes first-round disappointments Travis Taylor, Mark Clayton and Breshad Perriman, and midround misses Devard Darling, Demetrius Williams, Yamon Figurs, Marcus Smith and David Reed. More recently, the Ravens have taken seven total receivers in the past six drafts and only two were on an NFL roster in 2017.”
The Ravens would not have two Super Bowl titles without a smart draft strategy. Every pick is worth its weight in optimism.
But years of flops in Baltimore have devalued team-offered praise for new wide receivers. Twenty-six wideouts have been taken in franchise history, including three in the first round and another two in the second round. Some lived up to expectations. Others, well ...
Travis Taylor (2000, first round): "Travis gives us that speed," then-Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He is a great route runner and has the ability to make a player miss and gain yards after the catch. That combination enhances our success in the red zone."
Devard Darling (2004, third round): "We think there is a big upside," said Phil Savage, then the Ravens' director of player personnel. "He fits our profile: He's got size, got suddenness and he can make plays."
Mark Clayton (2005, first round): “Mark Clayton is my favorite player at that position,” said DeCosta, then the director of college scouting. “I wouldn't say we had him graded the highest. But if he's 6 foot 2, in my mind, he's the best player at that position in the draft."
Tandon Doss (2011, fourth round): "[Doss] was their go-to guy" at Indiana, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He was the guy they got the ball every way they could. He wasn't really a downfield guy, and I think it had more to do with the quarterback, because he got the ball on screens, crossing routes, stop routes. Whenever they needed a play, they gave it to him."
Breshad Perriman (2015, first round): “I think he does have some room to grow, and that's great for us," said Bobby Engram, then the Ravens’ wide receivers coach and now their tight ends coach. "As young receivers coming into this league, you always have to continue to work your craft in terms of working releases. Breshad has plenty of quicks for his size. We just have to get him working his hands a little better. But those are the things you get excited about, because that's what can make a really good player great."
In full ‘swing’
As the NFL has become a pass-first league in recent years, the Ravens’ thinking has seemingly evolved. Wide receivers who typically reach free agency are only so effective. Stars are discovered in the draft.
And while the team’s run-heavy offensive approach with quarterback Lamar Jackson and coordinator Greg Roman should ease the burden on their passing game, the Ravens still need playmakers out wide.
2004: "If we don't think there is a receiver that's a quality enough player to come in and impact our football team, we're not going to draft him," Newsome said. "We will answer the bell again at some point at the receiver position."
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2009: "We're going to have to find some guys at some point," DeCosta said. "But I don't necessarily feel the pressure to do that this year."
2014: "I think we've identified the type of receiver that we want," Newsome said. "And when John [Harbaugh] told me [the type of receiver he wanted], I lit up, because I was right there with him as to what we're looking for in a receiver this year. And I think before the 2014 season ends, we will have that guy on our football team."
2015: “It's a good class," DeCosta said. "There are a lot of different players, and we think we can get a good receiver in a lot of different rounds. Fortunately, there are some really talented guys, and hopefully we can get one."
2017: “If we feel like the best player is at [No.] 16 and he's a wide receiver, and we feel like he's going to come in and help Joe [Flacco] and help the other guys, then we'll turn that card in in a hurry,” Newsome said. “My job is to build the best 53-man squad and use all the resources, and the draft is just a part of it.”
2018: “You’ve got to swing,” DeCosta said. “We probably haven’t swung as much, quite honestly, for a lot of different reasons. I think that the receiver position and skill players in general, what I see is a sense of inflation where the league, the value of the skill players has been affected by inflation. Players are getting drafted probably higher than where we actually see their skill levels necessarily being.”
April 2: “I think one of the biggest things that we have to do is just get some at-bats and swing,” DeCosta said. “It’s hard to be a .400 hitter if you’re only going to bat twice. So we have to take some chances. We have to find some guys that we like.”
But then, they’ve been saying that for years now.