The Baltimore Ravens’ 2019 offense delivered the most rushing yards in NFL history, the most points in the league this past season and the unanimous selection at Most Valuable Player in quarterback Lamar Jackson.
The next step for Jackson and this young offense is finding consistent production at wide receiver. That’s why it is the position to watch at this week’s NFL combine.
Despite Marquise Brown, last year's first-round draft pick, flashing speed downfield, Baltimore’s wideouts totaled 1,419 yards last season, the fewest for that position since the 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars. The Ravens’ wide receivers managed 12 receptions of 25 or more yards, which was tied with the Philadelphia Eagles for the fewest in the NFL this season.
If there was a weakness in the Ravens’ offense, it was the threat of someone lining up wide and beating defensive backs time and time again, whether it was going deep or running after the catch.
Now, the Ravens have the No. 28 overall pick in a draft that has one of the deepest wide receiver classes ever.
At the combine, Baltimore general manager Eric DeCosta expressed interest in this year’s wide receivers but didn’t sound like someone who had the urge to bite on such a selection in the first round.
"There’s a lot of volume at the position,” DeCosta said. "There are some really talented guys. Obviously, the guys at the top. But also, when you look at the second and third rounds, you’ll see some guys who can come in and impact teams very quickly.”
The Ravens have never taken a wide receiver in the first round in consecutive drafts, and there have only been six teams that have done so in the 84-year history of the draft. It hasn’t happened in 15 years, when the Detroit Lions (2003-05), Atlanta Falcons (2004-05) and Jaguars (2004-05) all chose wide receivers in the first round in back-to-back seasons.
The expectation heading into the combine was that the run on wide receivers would occur in the middle of the first round. Many mock drafts have Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III and Clemson’s Tee Higgins going after the 10th overall pick and before Baltimore is on the clock at No. 28.
The top wideout prospects at that point for the Ravens are:
Laviska Shenault Jr., Colorado: This is the choice if you’re looking for the best athlete. Shenault has speed to beat defensive backs deep and the strength to break tackles after the catch. Durability is an issue. Last season, he missed one game and parts of four others because of injuries, but he still was named Colorado’s MVP for the second straight year.
Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State: This is the choice if you want the top combination of explosiveness and catch radius. He lacks height at just under 6-feet tall, but he has a massive, 6-foot-8 wingspan and big-time speed. His 1,192 yards receiving were the fifth most in a single season in Arizona State history. Aiyuk's production as a returner also should boost his stock with Baltimore.
Justin Jefferson, LSU: This is the choice if you want proven production. The top target for Heisman Trophy winner -- and presumed No. 1 overall pick -- Joe Burrow, Jefferson is a polished wide receiver who is set to make an immediate impact. His ability to run routes and make contested catches led to an off-the-charts season. His 111 catches last season were the most in LSU history, and his 18 touchdown caches were tied for the most in SEC history.
KJ Hamler, Penn State: This is the choice if you want pure speed. He is one of the smaller wideouts, measuring 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds at the combine. But Hamler could run in the 4.3s later this week in the 40-yard dash. His 1,586 all-purpose yards in 2019 ranked fourth in the Big Ten and the most among wide receivers. Teaming Hamler with Brown would make both safeties take a few steps back.
"I talked about last year building a track team around Lamar Jackson, and they did that at the wide receiver position last year with Hollywood Brown,” said Daniel Jeremiah, a draft analyst for the NFL Network. "I would go back, get more speed and just continue to add more speed like the Chiefs have done. I would double down.”
Last year, in his first offseason as Ravens GM, DeCosta said the team needed to take more swings at wide receiver. Baltimore did so, selecting two wide receivers in the first three rounds (Brown in the first round and Miles Boykin in the third) for the first time in franchise history.
The Ravens believe Brown will be more explosive a year removed from foot surgery and Boykin will make a big jump in his second season. But the only other proven wideout returning is Willie Snead IV.
Defensive coordinators are going to spend all offseason looking for ways to neutralize Jackson as well as the Ravens’ running backs and tight ends. That’s the foundation for an offense that scored 30 or more points in half of its games. And while team officials praise the wide receivers for their blocking and unselfishness, there needs to be an upgrade at that position in order for the offense to reach the next level.
Baltimore could add a veteran wide receiver such as A.J. Green
(if not franchised), Emmanuel Sanders or Robby Anderson in free agency. That will come at a price for a team that ranks in the bottom half of the NFL in salary-cap space and still needs a pass-rusher, an inside linebacker and an interior offensive lineman (especially if Marshal Yanda retires).
The other option is continuing to build a young supporting cast around Jackson and taking a wide receiver high in this year’s draft.
Is there enough value to take a wide receiver in the bottom of the first round?
“I think it’s going to be very tough to find somebody at that point,” said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., who has Baltimore taking LSU inside linebacker Patrick Queen in his first two mock drafts. “I think [an inside linebacker] would supersede a wide receiver who doesn’t have a first-round grade.”