Eisenberg: Replacing Boldin Ravens' Biggest Question


Over the years, the Ravens have shown a knack for knowing when to cut ties with veteran starters.

Many fans were horrified when they cut Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, their top two pass catchers, before the 2011 season, but neither did much in their new uniforms and are now out of football.

Adalius Thomas never played as well for the New England Patriots as he did for the Ravens, and the same was and is true for other players who went elsewhere such as Jamie Sharper, Duane Starks, Jermaine Lewis, Ed Hartwell, Le'Ron McClain, Dawan Landry and others.

Yes, there are exceptions. Priest Holmes had huge seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs after leaving Baltimore. Brandon Stokely has caught a lot of passes for a lot of teams. Chester Taylor had a thousand-yard rushing season in Minnesota. A huge game against the Ravens in 2011 helped pass rusher Antwan Barnes establish himself as a solid former Raven.

But the Ravens let those players go because they had others who could fill the spots and were younger and/or cheaper and/or better. For instance, they let Holmes go because they had Jamal Lewis, and Barnes was buried on the depth chart behind Terrell Suggs and others.

The end result is there are few times when the Ravens have gazed at a former player, sighed and wished they could snap their fingers and magically transport him back to their side.

A nice tradition.

It will be interesting to see whether Anquan Boldin tests it in 2013.

The Ravens traded their No. 1 wide receiver and top playoff playmaker to the San Francisco 49ers after he elected not to restructure his contract. He turns 33 in October, so it could be his most productive years are behind him. But he also is coming off a huge playoff run in which he grabbed four touchdowns.

Either way, the pressure on him to produce in 2013 was significantly ratcheted up earlier this week when the 49ers' Michael Crabtree went down with a torn Achilles in an OTA workout.

Crabtree led the 49ers with 85 catches for 1,105 yards in 2012 – levels Boldin never reached in Baltimore – and he isn't the only sidelined San Francisco receiver. Mario Manningham is coming back from a torn ACL, as is Kyle Williams.

In other words, three of the 49ers' top four receivers are dealing with major injuries, with Boldin the lone exception. You can be sure quarterback Colin Kaepernick will be targeting him in 2013.

Meanwhile, the Ravens elected not to replace Boldin with a free agent or high draft pick. They're going to study in-house candidates for the job during OTAs and minicamps, and they're also going to monitor the open market, as General Manager Ozzie Newsome recently told ESPN's John Clayton that "we could use a veteran receiver."

One of the basics of salary cap management is you make a move to save money when you think you can replicate a player's production at a lower cost. That principle led the Ravens to make the moves with Mason and Heap, who were replaced by Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. The younger guys made less money but caught as many or more passes.

Whether the Ravens can replicate Boldin's numbers becomes the issue now. He caught 65 passes for 921 yards in 2012 before coming on strong in the playoffs.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said earlier this week that he has the "same confidence" in the receivers on hand that he had in Boldin. But he also sounded almost wistful when he said, "One of the biggest things about Anquan is he knew he was the man. He didn't care what happened, he was the man. You don't realize how much that helps out your play and your team's play."

We won't know for months whether the Ravens are in the rare position of gazing at a former player and wishing they still had him. There are many possible ways for them to replace Boldin's numbers – with new blood, with young guys stepping up, with Pitta stepping outside.

But the situation is still fuzzy, and at this point, it's the Ravens' biggest question mark going into 2013.

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