For five years now, the Ravens have tried to build a wide receiver corps like the one they will see Sunday in Cincinnati. They have, according to one analysis, invested more draft capital in the position than any NFL team. They have hired well-respected assistant coaches. They have teamed their young wideouts with the most talented quarterback in franchise history.
And in the Ravens’ regular-season finale Sunday, a 27-16 loss to the Bengals, this is what all that got them: a start from the wide receiver who was signed after he was cut during training camp (Demarcus Robinson); 39 snaps from the oft-injured veteran claimed off waivers last month (Sammy Watkins); one catch total from the two homegrown players not on injured reserve (Tylan Wallace and James Proche II); and, ultimately, another day in the wideout wilderness that the franchise might as well call a second home.
As the sixth-seeded Ravens prepare for Sunday’s AFC wild-card-round game (8:15 p.m., NBC) against third-seeded Cincinnati, they will need more than clarity at quarterback, where injuries to starter Lamar Jackson and backup Tyler Huntley have complicated the team’s playoff plans. They will need help from a motley wide receiver group long considered a glaring question mark.
“I want to say: They’re working hard, and they’re fighting and competing out there to help us any way they can,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday of the team’s wideouts, who combined for five catches on 17 targets for 115 yards Sunday, along with three dropped passes and a fumble. “We need them to make the plays for us, and I know they want to, and we did make a few plays in the game.”
Without Jackson, whose knee injury is expected to sideline him again Sunday, that will be difficult. The Ravens’ receiving corps has struggled for much of the season, another year of inconsistent, injury-marred play underscoring the talent gap between them and the league’s best units.
In Cincinnati, the Bengals have delivered star quarterback Joe Burrow what the Ravens have perennially lacked. After drafting Burrow No. 1 overall in 2020, Cincinnati bolstered a group that already had reliable slot receiver Tyler Boyd by taking Tee Higgins one round after Burrow, then Ja’Marr Chase in the first round a year later. The Bengals’ aerial transformation was almost immediate: Their wide receivers finished second in the NFL in receiving yardage in 2021, and sixth this season.
The Ravens’ approach was similar. Their execution was not. After taking quarterback Lamar Jackson in the first round of the 2018 draft, general manager Ozzie Newsome and his successor, Eric DeCosta, used eight of their next 47 draft picks on wide receivers, including two first-rounders and two third-rounders. In 2021, the Ravens hired Tee Martin and Keith Williams, both lauded for their tutelage of young players, as their wide receivers coach and pass game specialist, respectively.
But none of the team’s picks have turned into stars. Only a handful have developed into regular contributors.
“Like a lot of the things with the Ravens since Eric took over, it’s been hit or miss,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Matt Miller said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “But I think ‘middle of the road’ is a safe assessment of where they’re at with their receiver group.”
After years of all but ignoring high-end wide receivers in the draft, the Ravens made finding help for Jackson an organizational priority. In 2019, ahead of his first draft as GM, DeCosta said the team needed to take more swings at the position. “It’s hard to be a .400 hitter if you’re only at bat twice,” he said. “We’ve got to take some chances.”
And the Ravens did. His first pick as GM was Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, taken No. 25 overall. His third pick was another athletically gifted wide receiver, Miles Boykin. Over each of his first three drafts, DeCosta spent at least two picks on wideouts, only one of them a late-round flier. In 2020, the Ravens drafted Devin Duvernay (third round) and Proche (sixth). In 2021, they took Rashod Bateman with their first of two first-round picks, then added Wallace in the fourth round.
The Ravens’ investment in the position was immense, even if their rookie contracts were team-friendly. According to an analysis of the Fitzgerald-Spielberger NFL draft trade value chart, which assigns values to draft slots — the higher the pick, the more it’s worth — no team has spent more draft capital on wide receivers over the past five years than the Ravens.
The return on their biggest investments, though, has been largely disappointing. Brown, taken ahead of future stars like Deebo Samuel and A.J. Brown, had just one 1,000-yard season before demanding a trade out of coordinator Greg Roman’s run-heavy system. Bateman has flashed star potential but has played in just 18 games over two injury-plagued seasons. Duvernay has developed into an All-Pro-level returner, but has yet to eclipse 450 receiving yards in a season. Boykin was released after three years of declining production.
The Ravens’ smaller gambles haven’t paid off, either. Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley, Day 3 picks in 2018, combined for one catch in Baltimore over their short-lived stays. Proche has struggled to translate his training camp success into regular-season production. Wallace has been limited mostly to special teams work.
According to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement metric, which evaluates a wide receiver’s performance relative to a replacement-level baseline, the Ravens’ production from their recent draft classes has been only average. The total DYAR of the Ravens’ young receivers since 2018 is less than that of even the Detroit Lions, who have drafted just four wide receivers in that span, only one of them before the fourth round.
“The receiver position’s hard,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of turnover because it is a hard position to evaluate.”
So some receiver-needy teams, eager to limit the guesswork involved, have gone another route. The Bills traded for Stefon Diggs in 2020, ahead of Josh Allen’s third season in Buffalo; the former Maryland star has made the Pro Bowl in every year since. The Miami Dolphins traded for Tyreek Hill; he finished second in the NFL in receiving this year despite concussions limiting QB Tua Tagovailoa to just 13 games. The Philadelphia Eagles traded for A.J. Brown; he set a career high in receiving yardage in 2022 and helped lift Jalen Hurts into NFL Most Valuable Player consideration.
“I definitely think there’s a lot of evidence that says that works,” said Miller, who noted the disappointing results of other traded-for receivers, like Marquise Brown, now with the Arizona Cardinals, and the Chicago Bears’ Chase Claypool. “Now I think the question will be: Was that a perfect storm of a lot of really young receivers becoming available-slash-frustrated at the same time? It’s almost unprecedented to have that much movement. So while we can say, ‘Hey, that’s the way to fix your team. If you have a young quarterback, trade for a veteran receiver’ — the problem is, they’re not always available.”
The Ravens were rumored to be interested in trading for DeAndre Hopkins, who ultimately went from the Texans to the Cardinals in 2020.
The Bengals’ draft success has had a force-multiplier effect on their offense. Toward the end of Cincinnati’s surprise postseason run last season, coach Zac Taylor pointed to the success that offensive coordinator Brian Callahan had enjoyed on the staff of Denver’s Super Bowl 50-winning team.
The 2015 Broncos had Peyton Manning at quarterback, but they also had three receivers — wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Owen Daniels — who posed “difficult” matchups for defenses, Taylor said. Under pressure, Manning could trust that at least one would get open against one-on-one coverage.
“We think when we’ve got the weapons that we now have, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense,” Taylor said in February. “It takes the pressure off of Joe Burrow. You’re able to get the ball out faster because guys can win quicker because you’ve got those playmakers that can make those type of plays. So again, it’s allowed us to be more explosive, score more points, put more pressure on the defense and allowed us to get to the Super Bowl as well.”
With the Ravens expected to have little salary cap flexibility entering the offseason, they might have to be patient with their developing wide receiver room. Considering the promise of the team’s early-season passing attack, that might not prove difficult.
Against a challenging slate of defenses, the Ravens averaged 0.08 expected points added per drop-back with Bateman, Duvernay and Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews all on the field, one of the NFL’s better rates according to TruMedia. (EPA is a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position.) Injuries sidelined all three at points this year, with foot troubles ending both Bateman and Duvernay’s seasons.
Wallace, who spent over a month on injured reserve himself, said Wednesday that the group’s health is paramount. If the Ravens’ young receivers can’t play, they can’t help the team with their blocking or catching or route-running. Wallace said the team’s wide receivers were making progress. He also knew it could be a “long process.”
“I think we have the most potential,” Wallace said. “I think we have so much room to grow and also just so much to showcase as well. I mean, all the talent that we have in the receiver group, putting us out there — we can just make plays, make explosive plays, as you’ve seen before. But I think we’ve just got to go out there, keep doing and keep grinding like we always have been, and our opportunity will come.”