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Elusive catch: Can Ravens erase lone smudge on shining draft record?

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta made headlines this week when he said he was “insulted” by the criticism of the team’s wide receivers.

But his strongly worded answer overshadowed the question that has caused fans to scratch their heads for more than two decades: Do the Ravens think about why the team has drafted a Pro Bowl player at every position except for wide receiver?

“I mean, do we think about it? I guess we think about it, but we want to win games. That’s really what I think about more often,” DeCosta said. “So, I can’t answer the question about Pro Bowlers and all that. If Pro Bowlers get voted Pro Bowlers, they’re Pro Bowlers. But I think we’ve had a lot of good receivers here over the years that have won big games for us.”

With the No. 27 overall pick, the Ravens have been heavily linked to wide receivers Rashod Bateman and Terrace Marshall Jr., which brings up the most mind-boggling draft stat in Baltimore.

Since the Ravens’ inaugural draft in 1996, Baltimore is one of two teams not to draft a Pro Bowl wide receiver (Washington Football Team being the other), according to ESPN Stats & Information. It’s not for a lack of trying either. The Ravens have drafted 32 wide receivers over the past 25 drafts, which trails only the Green Bay Packers (33).

This represents the only smudge on an impeccable draft record. The Ravens have built a perennial winner by drafting 32 Pro Bowl players (second most since 1996), from cornerbacks to edge rushers to tight ends to even fullbacks. Baltimore has also selected three first-ballot Hall of Fame inductees and an NFL MVP in Lamar Jackson.

The franchise’s biggest misses in the first round have repeatedly come at wide receiver, where Baltimore has whiffed on the likes of Travis Taylor, Mark Clayton and Breshad Perriman.

Is it fair to say the Ravens have a blind spot at wide receiver or is that overanalyzing one position?

“Yeah, I think there’s something to it,” said Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl and an ESPN NFL draft analyst who spent 18 years as an NFL scout. “Just speaking to my experience with the Patriots, we struggled with the wide receiver position as well. I think some positions are just a little more difficult. With what the Ravens are trying to get to do right now, it can be difficult because of the unconventional nature of Lamar and the offense. Not saying specifically to the Ravens, but just big picture, I do think teams can draft better at one position than another.”

Wide receiver had been one of the more difficult positions to nail for NFL teams. About a decade ago, the thinking among many NFL decision-makers was it would take at least a couple of years before a wide receiver truly developed.

Now, wide receivers are making immediate impacts. Over the past three drafts, four wide receivers have made the Pro Bowl (Justin Jefferson, A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf and DJ Chark Jr.), and a total of nine have produced at least one 1,000-yard season.

In those same three drafts, Baltimore has chosen six wide receivers (Jaleel Scott, Jordan Lasley, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Miles Boykin, Devin Duvernay and James Proche) and none of them has reached 800 yards receiving in a season.

In their history, the Ravens have had one 1,000-yard receiver from a drafted receiver (Torrey Smith in 2013). That’s the fewest in the NFL over the past 25 years.

“I think as the NFL game mirrors more the college game, it’s gotten easier to project what these guys are going to do and get them on the field and get them productive,” said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout. “In years past, you didn’t know how they were going to function with all the stuff that was going to be asked of them in terms of sight adjustments and those things, but they’ve taken a lot of that stuff and simplified it. Yeah, it’s just one of those positions. The Ravens have not had trouble anywhere else, but that’s been a little bit of the bugaboo. I think it is — for them and everybody else — it’s getting easier.”

Some of the Ravens’ track record with wide receivers has to do with bad luck. In 2010, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant were drafted within three picks of Baltimore going on the clock.

Some of it is bad decisions, in hindsight. In 2005, the Ravens chose Clayton at No. 22 when Roddy White and Vincent Jackson were still on the board.

When DeCosta took over for Ozzie Newsome as GM in 2019, he said the team needed to take more swings at drafting wide receivers to increase the chances of hitting at that position. That year, Baltimore selected Brown in the first round and Boykin in the third. Last year, the Ravens drafted Duvernay in the third round and Proche in the sixth.

Brown showed flashes of being a No. 1 wide receiver down the stretch last season, but the Ravens’ wide receivers have ranked last in catches and receiving yards in each of the past two seasons.

“I’m aware that there’s some fan discontent with our wide receivers in our drafting and all of that,” DeCosta said. “But in general, I look at our record and how we win games and how we play football. I’m proud of the team. We have some really good, young receivers. It’s insulting to these guys when they hear that we don’t have any receivers. It’s quite insulting. I’m insulted by it, too, to be honest. I think we have some guys that want to show everybody what they can do.”

There’s a growing narrative that the Ravens’ run-centric offense won’t lure top free-agent wide receivers to Baltimore and that puts more pressure on the team to hit on that position in order for Jackson to take the next step as a passer.

ESPN draft experts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both have Marshall going to Baltimore in their latest mock drafts. Others have the Ravens taking Bateman. Both bring a physical and playmaking style.

Marshall caught 23 touchdown passes for LSU in 2019 and 2020, which ranked third in the FBS despite playing just 19 games. But Jeremiah said this week that Marshall “had some medical stuff that popped up at the combine,” which could cause him to slide out of the first round.

Bateman played in only five games for Minnesota last season before opting out. In 2019, his 20.3 yards per catch was the highest by a Big Ten player since 2001 (minimum 50 receptions).

“Both are talented guys,” said Joe Hortiz, the Ravens’ director of player personnel. “A little different at what they do best, but certainly two guys that we have our eye on.”

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