Mailbag: When Will the Ravens Invest at Wide Receiver?

110222-Moore
Carolina Panthers wide receiver DJ Moore (2) catches a pass in front of Atlanta Falcons cornerback Darren Hall (34) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Atlanta.

Mink: The Ravens have invested a lot at wide receiver. They just haven't done so via free agency or trade – yes, including before this year's trade deadline.

Eric DeCosta used first-round picks on wide receivers in two of his first three years as general manager, grabbing Marquise Brown in 2019 and Rashod Bateman in 2021. The Ravens didn't draft a wide receiver this year but picked two in each of the previous four drafts. It's clear that Baltimore wants to add talent at the position, and continues to take swings.

It's just that the Ravens have not spent a lot of money at the position. They have instead chosen to try to stockpile young talent that can grow with Lamar Jackson while not gobbling up a ton of the team's salary cap space.

Wide receivers are incredibly expensive. Trading for DJ Moore, Brandin Cooks or Jerry Jeudy, for example, would have required likely a first-round pick in return, plus taking on big salaries in the case of Moore or Cooks. Jeudy is likely headed for a payday soon.

By comparison, acquiring linebacker Roquan Smith cost far less in trade value (reported second- and fifth-round picks) and if the Ravens do sign him to an extension, it won't break the bank. There are 14 wide receivers with an average salary of $20 million or above. There are zero inside linebackers at that number. Smith is one of the top five players at his position in the league. The same cannot be said about the receivers supposedly available at the deadline.

Now, one could argue that wide receiver is a more valuable position than inside linebacker, but I'm not as sold on that for the Ravens, specifically. Of course, having top-notch wide receivers is always going to help an offense be better. But the Ravens offense thrives when Jackson is protected well and the ground game is humming. Jackson loves throwing to his tight ends, and when protected well he's shown the ability to have a strong passing game even without premier outside weapons around him. The win in Tampa was a prime example. The Ravens offense caught fire in the second half, even with Bateman and Mark Andrews sidelined by injuries.

Thus, I expect the Ravens to keep taking shots at wide receiver in the draft and to keep supplementing with modestly priced free agents. If they draft a star and it's time to pay him, perhaps Baltimore will. But I don't think the Ravens are going to spend a ton of draft capital, plus the salary-cap space, to add a premier wide receiver from another team.

Mink:I'll take this one since we already mentioned the possibility of signing Smith to a long-term extension. Smith will be an unrestricted free agent in 2023 if he and the Ravens don't reach a contract extension before then. DeCosta did so with cornerback Marcus Peters after trading for him at the deadline in 2019, but did not do so after getting pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue in 2020.

Of course, a big part of this depends on how well Smith plays the remainder of the season. If he is a dominant difference-maker on the field and fits into the culture off the field, as the Ravens expect, they'll want to keep him. Giving up what the Ravens did would be an expensive rental (even though they could recoup a third- or fourth-round compensatory pick the following year). The benefit of bringing Smith in is that the Ravens get an up-close look at a player that could be a foundational piece of the defense for years to come before deciding whether to make what would be a hefty financial commitment.

Smith called contract negotiations with the Bears "distasteful" and publicly requested a trade this past offseason. He later reported to training camp to play on his fifth-year option, saying "I'm going to bet on myself as I've always done." If Smith continues to have a strong season, he'll be in line to be one of the league's top paid inside linebackers. The highest-paid at his position are the Colts' Shaq Leonard ($19.7 million), 49ers' Fred Warner ($19 million) and former Raven/Jet C.J. Mosley ($17 million). I expect that Smith would land somewhere in that range.

The Ravens could afford Smith. Much of it, of course, centers around Jackson's financial future. If the Ravens and Jackson come to a long-term agreement, his contract will be structured in a way to allow for other pieces to be added. Plus, the franchise tag is always an option. If the Ravens don't use it on Jackson next offseason, they could on Smith. There are a lot of possibilities here, but at the end of the day, I expect Smith will be a great fit and the Ravens will want to sign him long term. And if that's the case, they'll find a way to do it.

Downing: The Ravens should expect a lot from Smith. They just gave up reportedly two draft picks and a player to get him to Baltimore, so they clearly have high hopes for what he can bring to this defense. Smith leads the NFL with 83 tackles, and the Ravens expect him to continue gobbling up tackles here in Baltimore. Smith has been one of the best linebackers in the league since getting drafted in the first round in 2018, and he should thrive in the center of this talent-rich defense.

In addition to what Smith will bring from an X's and O's standpoint, he also has a leadership quality that is difficult to quantify. He was a captain in Chicago, one of the most respected players in the locker room and a vocal player on the field. Earning that respect can take time when transitioning to a new team, but Smith's track record will give him immediate weight in Baltimore. The biggest question with Smith is how quickly he can get up to speed on a new team. He has an extra day of practice with the Ravens playing on a Monday night, and the Ravens can simplify his role if needed to get him on the field quickly. I would expect him to play right away, and it won't take long to see the difference he makes on this unit.

Downing: I get the sense that DeSean Jackson's Ravens debut is nearing. He's been on the practice squad for three weeks now and the Ravens have been complimentary of him since his arrival. Head Coach John Harbaugh told reporters earlier this week that Jackson "looks great" and that he could make his debut against the Saints. Getting into football shape was a top priority for the 35-year-old receiver after signing with the Ravens and he's been working hard on that behind the scenes. Jackson is often one of the last players off the practice field and he's also gone through on-field workouts before games against the Browns and the Buccaneers.

With Rashod Bateman's foot injury, the Ravens need another wide receiver to step into a bigger role. Demarcus Robinson elevated his play against the Bucs by bringing in six catches for 64 yards, so the Ravens could lean on him more in Bateman's absence and give Jackson more time to get up to speed. But the Ravens signed Jackson to add another potential home-run threat to the offense, and he may step into the lineup in primetime Monday night in New Orleans.

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