When the Ravens obtained Anquan Boldin before the 2010 season, they hoped they were getting a dominant No. 1 receiver. Boldin was 29 at the time and had averaged more than 80 catches for Arizona over the prior three seasons while surpassing 1,000 yards in the prior two seasons.
It didn't work out exactly as expected. Boldin averaged 62 receptions and 882 yards in his three seasons in Baltimore. Those are solid numbers, not spectacular.
Boldin still brought plenty to the table. He was rugged, clutch and made plenty of big plays, taking over a handful of games. But the truth was he wasn't the fastest receiver and had trouble gaining separation from defenders at times. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco seemed hesitant to throw to him if he wasn't open, and there were games in which he seemed to disappear.
Then, in this year's playoffs, Boldin became that dominant No. 1 receiver. While the Ravens offense carried them on a four-game run to the Super Bowl title, he had twice as many receptions as any other wide receiver on the team and made a slew of big catches, including four for touchdowns.
It wasn't that he suddenly was faster and gained more separation from defenders. Flacco seemed to take a different approach, going ahead and putting the ball up for him into tight coverage, trusting Boldin to come down with it. With savvy and strength, Boldin did … over and over.
You know what happened next. Seeking to free up salary cap space within weeks of winning the Super Bowl, the Ravens asked Boldin to restructure his contract and then traded him to the San Francisco 49ers when they couldn't reach a deal.
Boldin was one of a handful of veterans to depart, leaving numerous holes in the lineup and stirring unease among fans. Most of the holes were on the defensive side and the Ravens have since filled a majority with solid free agent signings, quieting the unease. Between new veterans and young guys, the Ravens should be fine on defense.
But they haven't replaced Boldin, and it's going to be interesting to see how they fill the vacancy. Their options are to promote from within, draft new blood or sign a veteran, either a free agent or another team's salary cap casualty.
They like the players on hand such as Tandon Doss, who was Boldin's understudy and caught seven passes in 2012, and David Reed, who caught five passes last year. The coaches are extremely high on Deonte Thompson, who caught five passes after making the team as an undrafted rookie in 2012.
Maybe it's possible to replicate Boldin's contribution between those players and more from Jacoby Jones and Dennis Pitta, who can step outside and cause problems. Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti said last week that he believed it was "going to be a committee thing."
But with all due respect, I'm going to have to see that before I* *believe it.
A better alternative, I think, is to inject some new blood into the mix with a draft pick. The free agent market offers slim pickings, really no viable alternatives. There's always a chance a veteran will get cut, but you can't count on that. This year's draft class, meanwhile, offers numerous wideouts with a range of skills. You can be sure the Ravens are sorting through them after Boldin's departure, which, let's face it, created a need.
The lesson of these recent weeks is that you can't judge a roster move strictly on the first part alone, i.e., the decision to make the change. You have to wait and see how the team fills the vacancy. The Ravens did so quite adroitly on the defensive side.
But replacing Boldin is going to be especially difficult. In football, the relationship between the pitchers and catchers can be delicate. Look how long it took Flacco and Boldin to really get going. The pressure is on. The Ravens have officially become an offensive-oriented team, and offensive-oriented teams need big-play receivers. One way or another, they're going to need a major target for Flacco on the other side of the offense from Torrey Smith.