Recent WR injuries underly Ravens need to add veteran depth

Ravens, James Proche (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Ravens, James Proche (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images) /

The Baltimore Ravens have been taking a cautious approach in training camp. After a year in which they were injured at levels of historic proportions, the team wants to ease everyone back in and hopefully avoid a camp catastrophe similar to that of last year.

Baltimore has eased back on the level of contact during practice, while sitting 32 players during their preseason victory against the Titans, with it being unclear whether Lamar Jackson will play at all during the preseason.

And yet, the Ravens have still suffered a number of injuries to their receiving core.

Now, this is no cause for major concern as of now. None of these injuries seem season-ending, and day-to-day injuries are an unavoidable part of the game.

And yet, the current situation underlies the lack of depth the Ravens have at the receiving position.

The top end of the Ravens WR depth chart

For the amount of time, we’ve spent talking about the top-line of the Ravens pass-catchers and whether they should bring a superstar receiver in, the real immediate problem for 2022 is simply that the Ravens don’t have enough reliable bodies in the receiver room.

And, stop me if you’ve heard this before, but it only underlies the necessity to bring in a veteran receiver.

Right now, the Ravens are saying they like the receivers they have, which strictly in terms of the starting offense is a defensible position.

When talking about the pass-catchers, one must start with Mark Andrews. Yes, he is a tight end, but he is still a pass-catcher who had over 100 catches and 1300 yards in 2021, winding up as the first-team All-Pro selection at the position.

Andrews emerged as the reliable go-to guy in big situations that the Ravens had been lacking, someone who played a major role in the Ravens’ five fourth-quarter comeback wins in 2021. What’s more, the Ravens are hoping for Rashod Bateman to emerge as a true number one outside receiver in 2021.

While it is unfair to expect Bateman to suddenly become the type of receiver for Lamar Jackson that Ja’Marr Chase is to Joe Burrow or Stefon Diggs is to Josh Allen, there is a good argument to be made that Bateman should at least turn into a very good every-down player in 2022.

If the hope has always been that Bateman and Andrews would constitute the core of the pass-catchers for the foreseeable future, it makes sense to put them in that position in 2022.

Beyond that, James Proche and Isaiah Likely have at least shown enough that it is reasonable to say that they should be given an opportunity to be the number three and four pass-catchers in 2022.

Proche, a sixth-round pick in 2020, was very productive in the slot when given the chance last year, finishing fourth in receiving DVOA among players with fewer than 50 targets.

That, combined with a  strong showing in camp in 2022, indicates that he has at least earned a chance to receive greater volume from the slot in 2022.

Likely, a fourth-round tight-end out of Coastal Carolina, has been perhaps the breakout star of training camp for the Ravens. He has impressed in practice, before impressing in the passing game during his preseason debut.

For a team that seems to be hoping to run more two tight-end sets, Likely seems like the perfect candidate to play a similar role to Hayden Hurst in 2019, but perhaps with even greater production.

When put in that light, the Ravens pass-catchers don’t sound too bad.

After all, the Ravens don’t run as much spread as other teams, and a run-heavy offense with two reliable tight-ends, a ball-winner on the outside, and an efficient player in the slot may not sound too horrible. It certainly is better than the group with which Lamar Jackson won MVP in 2019.

They may not have the weapons of teams like the Bengals or Raiders, but the top-end may not be horrible. Unfortunately, there is nothing after that, and the Ravens are facing a dose of reality when it comes to their depth.

The Ravens lack of WR depth

After those four, the Ravens do not really have many options.

While there is hope that Devin Duvernay could crack the rotation as a regular receiver, he has not proven that he can be anything other than a kick-returner and gadget player on offense, and Tylan Wallace struggled to stay on the field in 2021 and has underwhelmed so far in camp.

Beyond that, the Ravens have no receivers who were drafted to an NFL team.

And while players like Shemar Bridges, Makai Polk, Binjimen VIictor, and Slade Bolden have gotten some Ravens fans excited, it is important to temper expectations and remember that these are undrafted rookies fighting for a spot on the team.

Yes, they have played well and it is natural to be excited about them maybe being on, but it is highly unusual for an undrafted rookie to produce at a high level in their first season.

Bringing in a bunch of undrafted players and hoping that they will be NFL-ready should an injury come up is reckless at best, and is not sustainable as a method of building out any position group.

Having as many season-ending injuries as the Ravens did last year would end hope for any team, but a rash of smaller injuries affecting a game or two is an unfortunate reality that every team has to prepare for, even if it still is unlucky when it happens.

Consider for a second what would have happened if this wasn’t August, but the middle of October. Suddenly the Ravens would be playing real games mainly relying on undrafted players at receiver, and we would be right back to “f— it, Andrews out there somewhere.”

As mentioned earlier, many Ravens fans have been comparing this receiving core to 2019 and saying everything will be OK, which is a mistake for a number of reasons.

For starters, fans seem to be conveniently forgetting the horrific performance put on by the pass-catchers in the playoff loss to the Titans, in which, in an incredible twist of irony, seemingly everyone except Marquise Brown forgot how to catch a football.

But what’s more, that team has a remarkably clean bill of health offensively. While the 2021 Ravens were the most injured team of the 21st century according to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost metric, the 2019 team had the healthiest offense that year.

As bad as the likes of Willie Snead and Seth Roberts were, the Ravens were only a bad break or two away from having to rely on players like Chris Moore and Jaleel Scott, and were quite frankly lucky to avoid such a situation.

Last year, the Ravens’ offensive line actually only had one season-ending injury but seemingly always had a couple of other players out on any given week and they didn’t have the adequate depth to adjust, despite seemingly having a solid base starting lineup on paper.

Tyre Phillips, Patrick Mekari, and Alejandro Villanueva all started games at multiple positions, with Kevin Zeitler being the only one to start all 17 games in the same spot.

The Ravens learned their lesson this offseason, and along with bringing in Morgan Moses and Tyler Linderbaum as upgrades, while retaining Mekari as a swiss army knife utility lineman, bringing in Ja’Wuan James, and drafting the 6-foot-8, 384-pound Daniel Faalele to sure up depth at tackle.

This has not only shored up the depth on the outside but allowed Ben Cleveland and Tyre Phillips to worry just about the inside, adding even more depth at guard as well.

The Ravens had a chance to learn a similar lesson in 2019, but they were lucky enough to avoid having to face that reality, and now could be making the same mistake with receivers in 2022 that they made with the line in 2021.

Simply put, the Ravens have no choice but to bring in a veteran receiver for depth. We are long past the days of talking about whether the Ravens should sign higher-end receivers on the open market or trade for a player taking part in the great receiver musical chairs game of the 2022 offseason.

We are now talking about simply bringing in guys like Odell Beckham Jr. Cole Beasley, Will Fuller, or T.Y. Hilton, guys who could just bring some extra bodies to provide depth and reliability.

The Ravens will not upgrade the top-end of their pass-catchers for 2022, and that might not be the end of the world. Those guys have at least earned the right to be given a chance, and appear to have a chance to at least be good if not spectacular.

But beyond that? There does not appear to be much of a Plan B, something which needs to change.

The Ravens’ current pass-catching group is like a delicately composed Jenga set, one which could stand on its own if every piece is perfectly in place- but one fallen piece could bring everything down.

While it would be a statistical anomaly for the Ravens to be as hurt as they were in 2021, the likelihood is they will face some injuries at some point.

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Should that happen to their receivers, they currently lack the reinforcements to be able to adequately skate by, something which needs to change.