Four days before DeAndre Hopkins became the NFL’s most unexpected free agent, the star wide receiver made his latest public flirtation with the Ravens.
“I love Lamar Jackson,” Hopkins said on the “I Am Athlete” podcast. “Lamar Jackson’s one of my favorite athletes since I’ve been watching sports. I’m a sports fan, so I was watching Lamar when he played Clemson [in college] ... and I was like, ‘Who is this kid?’ I’ve been a fan of Lamar for a long time. Obviously, he’s one of the greats. I would be lying to sit here and say it wouldn’t be an honor one day, if my career allows me to play that long, to play with a great guy and a great quarterback like Lamar.”
On Friday, that partnership seemed at once more possible than ever but also as unlikely as ever. With the Arizona Cardinals releasing Hopkins, the five-time All-Pro is, unexpectedly, a free agent. But, after a busy offseason, the Ravens have an upgraded talent pool at wide receiver and a depleted budget.
Could Hopkins come to Baltimore? It’s possible. The Ravens were in the market for the 30-year-old this offseason. But another splashy signing is hard to imagine, for any number of reasons.
Hopkins’ price tag seemed prohibitive when the Ravens were connected to him this offseason. Under his Cardinals contract, his base salary was $19.5 million in 2023 and $14.9 million in 2024, which would’ve ranked among the Ravens’ highest cap hits over the next two seasons.
Now the Ravens have a far more talented wide receiver room and far less cap space. Odell Beckham Jr.’s $15 million deal, signed in April, is the richest for a free-agent wide receiver this offseason. First-round pick Zay Flowers’ rookie contract is worth a projected $14 million over the next four years. Nelson Agholor signed a one-year, $3.3 million contract in March.
With Jackson’s megadeal signed, the Ravens have about $11.5 million in cap space, a number that will shrink when Flowers finalizes his deal and must account for looming in-season expenses. If money is the biggest driver for Hopkins, as has been reported, the Ravens probably can’t outspend the receiver-needy Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers or New England Patriots, all of whom have more cap space. Even if the Ravens can make a competitive offer, would the front office have the appetite for further contract restructuring if it means taking on another potential salary of at least $15 million?
Under general manager Eric DeCosta, the Ravens largely have been unwilling to mortgage their future. Even when they spent lavishly on Beckham, his signing came with an all-important olive branch for Jackson. Now the Ravens have a franchise quarterback, a solid receiving corps and more pressing needs elsewhere.
2. Team needs
Hopkins’ 2022 production was underwhelming. It also needs context. Despite missing the first six games of last season for violating the NFL’s drug policy, and the Cardinals’ final two games with a knee injury, he finished with 64 catches for 717 yards and three touchdowns.
In the five games he played with quarterback Kyler Murray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in December, Hopkins looked like one of the NFL’s best wideouts. According to Pro Football Focus, he averaged 2.32 yards per route run in games Murray started last year, which would’ve ranked 11th among wide receivers with at least 50 targets last season. In Baltimore, Hopkins would be Jackson’s clear-cut top wide receiver.
But the Ravens have other needs of relatively equal import, and they can be filled much more cheaply. With only three veteran edge rushers on the roster, they could look to re-sign Justin Houston, who led the team in sacks last year, for about $5 million. With little depth in the slot, they could add a cornerback such as Bryce Callahan and still have space for another notable acquisition. With the team’s injury history at running back, the Ravens could bring another veteran into the backfield mix.
The Ravens’ horrific history at wide receiver should offer little reassurance about the position’s prospects for any given season. But the best team-building strategies rarely forsake starting-level depth at key positions for star power at one spot.
3. Receiver talent
Offensive coordinator Todd Monken didn’t need an embarrassment of receiving riches to turn quarterback Stetson Bennett into a Heisman Trophy finalist last year. Georgia had a future first-round pick in tight end Brock Powers, but its next three most productive receivers were a wideout who likely projects as a Day 3 prospect (Ladd McConkey), a running back (Kenny McIntosh) and an in-line tight end (Darnell Washington).
In Baltimore, Monken has the pieces for a promising, if injury-prone, passing attack. Jackson is a former NFL Most Valuable Player whose range as a passer has expanded in recent seasons. Mark Andrews is one of the NFL’s best tight ends, and Isaiah Likely has flashed similar skills. The offensive line could have two or three Pro Bowl-level performers.
And, of course, there’s real optimism at wide receiver. Flowers is a do-everything talent. Rashod Bateman, another former first-round pick, was among the NFL’s most productive wideouts last season until he suffered a Lisfranc (foot) injury. Beckham had a dazzling 2021 postseason and is optimistic about his health. Even Devin Duvernay could be a standout in a diminished role; his production was in line with that of a WR2 over the first half of last season, and he’ll likely enter training camp as a WR4 or WR5 in Baltimore.
That’s probably not enough to match up with what the Cincinnati Bengals, or even the Pittsburgh Steelers, have out wide. But Jackson has done more with less before. And now he should have way more than he’s ever had before, with or without Hopkins.