Ravens need to get 'creative' to add an established receiver for Lamar Jackson

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s tempting to envision Lamar Jackson returning to the Baltimore Ravens offense and throwing deep downfield to DeAndre Hopkins or Keenan Allen.

But the biggest obstacle to getting an established wide receiver for Jackson this offseason might be the quarterback himself.

The Ravens won’t have much salary-cap room to sign a top-notch target or trade for one if they have to put the exclusive franchise tag on Jackson next month. All of the Ravens’ $26 million cap space will get taken up by Jackson’s $45 million franchise tag, which means Baltimore will have to cut players and rework contracts to fit him under the cap.

Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta did not sugarcoat the situation when asked whether Baltimore could afford acquiring a No. 1 wide receiver this offseason.

“Honestly, when you have a big-ticket item at quarterback, it makes it more challenging – not impossible,” DeCosta said at last month’s end-of-season news conference. "We’ll have to get creative, and there are things we can do.

“There are a lot of different ways to go about constructing the team and finding players and affording players and various things like that. But we’ve got to be really creative.”

That creativity could include parting ways with some popular players. The Ravens can create $19 million in cap room by releasing defensive end Calais Campbell ($7 million cap savings), running back Gus Edwards ($4.3 million), wide receiver Devin Duvernay ($4.3 million) and safety Chuck Clark ($3.4 million). Baltimore can free up more cap space by restructuring some other contracts and getting others to take pay cuts.

The Ravens will have to make these types of moves if they want to improve the NFL’s least productive wide receiver group. Baltimore’s wide receivers totaled the fewest receiving yards last season (1,517) and went 13 weeks without catching a touchdown pass.

"The one area that needs to be built is the wide receiver room, so that will be a new room, basically,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "There will be pieces of it still there – you know the guys – and then we’ll be adding a lot of pieces to that room.”

Rashod Bateman, who missed the last nine games with a foot injury, is the only certainty to return. Demarcus Robinson and Sammy Watkins, who were Baltimore’s starters in the playoffs, are both unrestricted free agents. James Proche and Tylan Wallace, two recent draft picks, have failed to develop.

The Ravens have typically addressed the position in the draft more than free agency. Baltimore has selected eight wide receivers in the past five drafts, including two (Marquise Brown and Bateman) in the first round. The only significant free agent signing at wide receiver during Jackson’s four full seasons as a starter was Watkins in 2021.

This offseason, the free agent class for wide receivers is underwhelming, but there are intriguing potential trade options and cap-cut candidates: Hopkins, Allen, Brandin Cooks, Adam Thielen, Robert Woods, Russell Gage, Michael Thomas, Corey Davis and Kenny Golladay.

Trading for a wide receiver could be difficult for the Ravens because of a lack of draft capital this year. Baltimore has five draft picks, including just one in the first 85 selections.

If the Ravens were willing to trade a pick this year (or swap picks this year and give up future ones), they would need to get new deals with Hopkins ($19.45 million salary in 2023), Allen ($15.5 million) and Cooks ($18 million), because they wouldn’t be able to fit them under the cap.

The more likely scenario is signing an expected cap cut like Thielen, Woods or Thomas. Baltimore has a track record of adding wide receivers who are 30 or older, from Derrick Mason to Anquan Boldin to Steve Smith.

With a new offensive coordinator on his way, there will be pressure to make wide receiver the Ravens’ next offseason addition.

"We hear the fans; we hear you guys with the questions, certainly,” DeCosta said. "Our goal is to build the very best team we can build.

“Last year, one of our key missions was to build the offensive line back, and we feel excited about that and the way we were able to do that in different ways. We think we’re very, very close to building a championship team."