A Boldin-sized hole has the Baltimore Ravens seeking answers

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On February 8, 2013, Anquan Boldin was quoted as saying he would retire from the NFL if the Ravens cut him.

On March 9, 2013, it was reported that the Ravens would cut Anquan Boldin if he refused to reduce his salary from $6 million to $4 million. That same day, it was reported that Boldin refused the proposed pay cut and would prepare to test free agency.

Somewhere in that interim month, Anquan Boldin realized that he wasn’t as important to the Ravens as they were to him. The front office, having seen Boldin’s apparent bond with the city, became overconfident in their leverage and overplayed their hand. As a result, their ultimatum drove away a fan favorite, and all the league executives had to do was bide their time until the Ravens made good on their word, as it was clear that Boldin wasn’t going to take that pay cut.

Many fans lamented the fact that the Ravens only recouped a sixth round pick in exchange for their postseason hero. However, after making it clear they intended to release Boldin, the team was lucky to get anything in return. John handed Flacco’s favorite target off to Jim, and Ozzie Newsome gambled on the personnel at his disposal.

Boldin was most effective as a possession receiver – somebody who could be counted on for the tough catches and yards. On 50/50 balls, Boldin frequently rose above the defender with a Shaolin-death-grip to come down with the reception.

It is likely that some of the organization’s decision to let go of Boldin was tied to the emergence of TE Dennis Pitta. And with the roster full of receivers like Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, Tommy Streeter, Aaron Mellette and Marlon Brown, why not let Darwinism take over to fill the void?

The Ravens were taking a gamble. They knew that. They surely couldn’t have known, though, how bad a gamble it would turn out to be.

Pitta nearly missed the entire season with a dislocated hip; Jones injured his knee in week one when Brynden Trawick, his teammate, collided with him on a punt return; they initially cut Doss only to resign him due to a lack of production from those who initially bested him; Thompson hurt his ankle in the first preseason game and fell behind on the depth chart; Streeter didn’t make the roster; Mellette showed promise in preseason but eventually found himself on IR due to knee surgery; and Brown, an undrafted rookie free agent, was really the only of the bunch to provide significant production during the 2013 season.

Meanwhile, Joe Flacco only appeared comfortable throwing to Torrey Smith for the vast majority of the season.

So, a year removed from the gamble, the Ravens are still looking to fill the void left by Anquan Boldin, and wide receiver is one of the glaring needs on an offense that underperformed according to virtually every metric.

Of those who competed for the spot last year, Doss, Thompson, Mellette and Brown can reasonably expect to be around. Jones is fringe for next season, as his two-year deal etched back in 2012 expired at the end of last season. The money that the front office saved in restructuring Suggs’ deal goes a long way towards helping secure some of their assets, however, of the pass catchers whose contracts expired, Pitta’s is by far the most important to retain. It will be interesting to see just how far that $4.6 million in cap space will stretch, or if other Ravens will restructure in a similar manner (Ngata is next in line with a $16 million cap number).

In any event, it is almost a sure thing that the Ravens will bring in fresh talent at the wide receiver position. Whether that is via the draft or free agency remains to be seen, however there is talent available in both pools. For all of the Ravens success drafting over the years, wide receiver (and prior to Joe Flacco, quarterback) is the only position where they have noticeably faltered. Travis Taylor and Mark Clayton were both misses in the first round; Demetrius Williams, Clarence Moore, Devard Darling – these are just a few of the examples of failed draft picks in the later rounds. Whatever the reason, the Ravens have struggled to develop their own wideouts, and Torrey Smith is the first homegrown receiver to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark.

Thankfully, Smith seems to be penciled in at starter for years to come. But there is noticeably a lack of physicality at the position. It is a little ironic that the Ravens find themselves searching for the type of player they gave away a year prior, but that is the reality.

The hiring of Gary Kubiak adds a new wrinkle to the fold, as he could carry with him preconceived preferences. Kubiak was the person who drafted Jacoby Jones with the intention of pairing him with Andre Johnson, so it is possible that he favors athleticism on the outside over physicality. One thing is certain with Gary Kubiak: he will use two tight ends, and use them a lot. It is for that reason that many suspect the Ravens will take a complement to Dennis Pitta early in the draft.

There is ample talent to select from at the WR position, with each possessing varied skillsets. On the possession side of things, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans is a big bodied target that can go get the ball, as is Vanderbilt’s Jordan Mathews. Meanwhile, USC’s Marqise Lee is a bit smaller, but is arguably the most well rounded wideout in the draft. These are only a few of the potential first rounders at the wide receiver position, and the consensus is that this is a very deep class at the position.

Meanwhile, receivers like Hakeem Nicks and Jeremy Maclin have expiring contracts, demonstrating the caliber of wideout available on the free market – albeit for a heftier price. Heck, Anquan Boldin’s contract is expiring, maybe they can bring that guy back. Although something tells me the third time is the charm, and the 49ers won’t let Boldin escape as easily as did the Cardinals and Ravens.

Whichever mode they decide upon – be it free agency or the draft in April – there will be some new toys for Joe Flacco to play with by the time the team reconvenes.


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