Weak field of free agent wide receivers
Wide Receiver has been a highly questionable position on the Ravens for what feels like ever since their infancy. Recently, at least since the trade that sent Anquan Boldin to the 49ers for a sixth round pick. It was a six-million dollar salary dump that was justified by Dennis Pitta being a slot threat that could replace him. Low and behold, Pitta suffered a near season ending injury. Young guys like Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson would need to step up, and they didn’t. Thompson was injured in the pre-season and would catch ten balls in seven games. Restricted free agent Tandon Doss would be cut but eventually resigned. The Ravens turned to undrafted rookie Marlon Brown who played very well considering he missed his senior season at Georgia. They would also have to grab a blast from the past, Brandon Stokely, to run out of the slot. His season would be cut short as well.
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The position was a mess, contributing to the 29th ranked offense in 2013. Jacoby Jones is a free agent which means the Ravens have four WRs on the depth chart: Torrey Smith, Marlon Brown, Aaron Mellette and Deonte Thompson.
Torrey Smith has gotten better since the Ravens drafted him three years ago. He’s durable, playing in every game in his career. He averaged 4.1 catches per game in 2013 versus 3.1 RPG in his first two years. Also 70 yards receiving per game in 2013 versus 53 YPG prior to that. Unfortunately he couldn’t find the endzone enough, just four times after 15 TDs in his first two seasons. I still believe that the Ravens don’t utilize him properly, which would be drawing up plays to get him in open space where he can beat guys with his legs. Maybe a permanent move to the slot where he’d rarely face press coverage.
We heard Harbaugh mention during the State of the Ravens presser that he thinks Aaron Mellette could be an asset in the deep passing game next year. Would he simply be taking the spot of Jacoby Jones if he is not retained? Or would he take more of the deep passing routes away from Torrey, allowing Smith to be utilized in another way?
Either way, wide receiver is a need of the Ravens. Sure, in a perfect world Mellette and Marlon Brown who we hope builds on a nice rookie season would be a nice complement of Torrey Smith, with Dennis Pitta doing his thing and hopefully getting back to 2012 form. But the NFL is far from a perfect world. The Ravens could target a new receiver for the arsenal from the draft, or they could go the route of free agency. The Ravens have a type of receiver in mind (and I wish they would disclose that because it would make this exercise easier), we’ll see if it is one of these guys who could be available on the market.
Before we look at the potential free agents, here’s a look at some receivers who have recently gotten contracts, to gauge what some of the free agents could be worth.
The cream of the crop
Eric Decker- Might as well kickoff the list with the only big name on it in a down year for wideouts. Decker will no doubt be at the top of all WR free agent lists. Double digit TDs each of the last two seasons. 85 catches and 1,064 yards in 2012. 87 catches and 1,288 yards in 2013. He can line up outside, or in the slot. Even with Wes Welker on his side, he ran 205 routes from the slot and caught 80% of his targets there which was best in the NFL. Welker caught just 64% of his targets from the slot. Overall, his 2.03 yards per route run puts him among the top WRs in the league. (Over 2.0 is exceptional). He can also catch the deep ball with the best of them. Decker’s 15 catches over 20 yards last year tied him with A.J. Green and Josh Gordon, and is one shy of league leader DeSean Jackson. Decker caught 60% of his deep targets which was far and away the best. (Jackson was 2nd at 48.5%). He caught the best percentage of deep balls, the best percentage of balls from the slot, the only question is can he do that without Peyton Manning. With glorified fullback that thought he could throw, Tim Tebow, Decker still put up about half the catches and yards with eight TDs in 2011. So give him at least a real QB and I don’t expect the drop off from the high powered Manning offense to be that severe. Decker will be 27 years old and at 6’3”, with those numbers and versatility, he will be highly sought after. I think a lot of people would agree the Mike Wallace was severely overpaid. But you could make a strong case that Eric Decker is better than Wallace, and thus should be paid better than him. Five year deal is a given. $65M with a $15M signing bonus isn’t out of the question. Hopefully whoever signs him staggers that money better than the Dolphins did Wallace, ($17.25M cap hit in 2014. Ouch!). The Ravens could target Decker, back loading his deal to make it cap friendly for 2014. However it would mean likely parting ways with Torrey Smith when he becomes a UFA in 2015. They wouldn’t be able to pay two receivers top end money. One season of Decker and Torrey together could be very interesting. After that, I think I’d be glad I chose to move forward long term with a guy like Decker instead of Smith.
Anquan Boldin – A household name. Boldin had a better season in San Francisco than he did in any of his three years in Baltimore: 85 receptions, 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns. Boldin never eclipsed 1,000 yards here and his 65 catches in 2012 were his most in that three year span. Boldin has had great seasons prior to Baltimore, and now after Baltimore. That should tell you something isn’t kosher with the offense here. But that’s a discussion for another time. Boldin would be about as reliable an option as you could get as far as hands go. Strong, physical, veteran presence, and his familiarity with Joe Flacco are all plusses. He’ll turn 34 years old in October putting him in the two-three year contract range. I think the Steve Smith deal he got at age 33 is higher than Boldin’s worth, but somewhere between Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne seems right. Three years at 16M, 6M of that guaranteed. A Three year deal with a $6M signing bonus, pro-rated across the length of the deal, means you can give Boldin a base salary of $1M with a total cap hit of just $3M in 2014. Base salary could jump to $4M and $5M in 2015 and 2016 with cap hits of $6M and $7M.
James Jones- Jones was drafted in the third round in 2007 out of San Jose State, but didn’t really break out until 2011 when he scored seven TDs despite not being a starter. Jones notched a remarkable 14 TDs in 2012 when he became a full time starter. He missed two games in 2013 and still put up a career best 817 yards. Possibly could have eclipsed 1,000 had he not been hurt. He’s another Anquan Boldin type. Strong hands (just two drops in 2013), 6’1”, 208lbs. Jones will be 30 years old in March and only has two good seasons under him. So his contract won’t be anything earthshattering. But like Boldin at age 30 in 2010, tack on the inflation, and a three year deal worth about $25M, with $8M guaranteed sounds about right for Jones. I think for him to fit into the Ravens cap situation, he would have to get a fourth year tacked on there to stagger the money in favorable way for 2014.
Best bang for your buck
Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper – Have to think the Eagles can’t keep both. Maclin missed 2013 with an ACL tear, so maybe worth a shorter deal. Cooper is unproven, but will likely get the longer deal. Either way teams might not invest too much in these guys up front in guaranteed money, and could get a great deal of production in return.
Tiquan Underwood – He’s been released eight times in five years. The Bucs brought him back a month into 2013, and he notched 18.33 Y/R. Has he finally found a way to stay in the NFL? The Bucs have Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams locked up for quite a while. Underwood might get a deal from another team. A small deal could pay off big dividends.
The big “red flags”
Julian Edelman – I fear that he’s a product of the Patriots system. Wes Welker’s numbers made a giant spike when he went to New England, and now a similar system in Denver. Edelman is going down the same road and the Broncos won’t be calling. Tread lightly.
Hakeem Nicks – 0 TDs in 2013. Can’t stay healthy and one of those guys that plays when he wants to.
Jerome Simpson – He’s likely to face discipline to start the season, pleading guilty to careless driving and third degree DUI. No thanks.
Kenny Britt – He was a healthy scratch in three of the Titans final four games. Need I say more?
Solid, but not exciting
Ted Ginn Jr.
Cheap fill in guys if things go terribly wrong