Do the Ravens Have a Viable Threat Outside of Steve Smith?
Flashback to January 12th, 2013.
The Ravens are playing against the Broncos in the AFC championship game. The score is 28-35 with 1:09 remaining on the clock. I am on the back patio of a bar in the heart of Federal Hill in Baltimore surrounded by thousands of others, all Ravens fans. We are watching the final minutes on a huge blowup projector screen as Joe Flacco walks up to the line.
First pass is incomplete. The second play is a seven-yard scramble. Then on the third play, when Flacco lets go of the ball, the entire crowd begins to cheer -- before going completely silent. They began to cheer because Flacco let the ball rip, they went silent because his intended target was Jacoby Jones. The Baltimore Ravens 2012 Super Bowl hopes were in the hands (or lack thereof) of Jacoby Jones, and we were terrified. Jacoby caught that ball and the Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl that season.
Baltimore Ravens fans despised Jones because of his inconsistent hands, but in reality he was a positive contributor to the offense.
While he only caught 67 passes over 2012 and 2013, he still contributed a Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) total of 67.35, which compares a player's impact on his team's expected scoring total to historical expectation-level. His Reception NEP was greater than 30 in both seasons.
As the Ravens' third wide receiver in 2015, Marlon Brown is on pace to finish the season with a Reception NEP total of 15.86. The Ravens miss the wide receivers that they have let go, even Jacoby Jones.
Losing Torrey Smith
Has the loss of Torrey Smith hurt Baltimore? The answer is a resounding yes. As a long time Ravens fan, I have seen them have down years -- only to pick it up and make the playoffs. As recent as 2013, Baltimore went into Week 12 with a 4-6 record, only to end the season 8-8. They went on to make the playoffs and narrowly lost to the Patriots in the divisional round. The big run at the end of the regular season was widely thanks to elevated play from Smith. Interestingly, the main difference between the 2015 Ravens and the 2014 Baltimore Ravens is also Torrey Smith.
While I have never been Torrey Smith's biggest fan, I am reasonable enough to understand what he meant to the team. He was injured in their Week 14 meeting with Miami, but in the other 5 games from Weeks 12 to 17, he caught 22 passes for 317 yards and 5 touchdowns. Through 7 games this season, as the de facto "Torrey Smith," Kamar Aiken has 19 catches for 271 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The Ravens have struggled to replace the production from Smith, just as they struggled to replace Anquan Boldin's production in 2013. Flacco has been a productive quarterback in the seasons that he has had two viable pass catching threats. He has not been as productive without viable receivers.
|Season||Flacco Passing NEP Per Play||Receiver 1||Rec NEP||Receiver 2||Rec NEP|
|2008||-0.02||Derrick Mason||92.44||Mark Clayton||58.39|
|2009||0.11||Derrick Mason||95.46||Todd Heap||56.15|
|2010||0.09||Anquan Boldin||76.3||Derrick Mason||78.43|
|2011||0.06||Anquan Boldin||74.22||Torrey Smith||73.08|
|2012||0.05||Anquan Boldin||82.01||Torrey Smith||77.4|
|2013||-0.03||Torrey Smith||97.73||Marlon Brown||48.55|
|2014||0.16||Steve Smith||84.65||Torrey Smith||80.96|
|2015||0.05||Steve Smith||114.58 (16-Week Pace)||Kamar Aiken||58.45 (16-Week Pace)|
When we dig deeper, we can see that -- beyond his 2009 outlier when the Ravens were carried by Ray Rice -- Joe Flacco has had his best statistical seasons with two viable receiving threats. It seems almost obvious, when looking at this table, that Flacco needs two viable pass catching threats to succeed -- he is just not the type of guy who can elevate a wide receiver beyond his skill set.
The big question is whether Aiken can be that second viable option. The last time Baltimore tried this same experiment, in 2013, it ended horribly. Flacco threw the most passes of his career and posted his absolute worst statistical season. He is on pace to have his least efficient season other than 2013 and his rookie season.
The 2015 Receivers
Aiken has been effective this year, but he has also been terribly inefficient, only catching 19 of his 37 targets. He has a Target NEP total of 7.36, ranking him 60th of 122 players with 10 or more targets on the season. Aiken has had three solid games this season, contributing a Reception NEP total of 21.91 from Week 4 to 7.
It is also important to remember that Steve Smith was injured in both Week 4 and Week 5, leaving Aiken as the top wide receiver. However, in his other four games, he has posted a Reception NEP total of less than three points in each game -- basically contributing less than a field goal's worth of offense in his catches. Outside of one productive game while Steve Smith was healthy, Aiken has been pretty much non-existent while Smith has been on the field. If Aiken can be a solid contributor as the second wide receiver, we have yet to see it.
Chris Givens was once the talk of the Baltimore Ravens Twitterverse after Ozzie Newsome traded a conditional seventh-round pick for the young speedster. In 2015 for the Ravens, Givens has 3 catches on 6 targets for 49 yards. He does lead the team in yards per reception at 16.3, however. In 2012, in less than a full season as a starter, Givens had 42 receptions for 698 yards which was good for 16.6 yards per reception. While he is nowhere near as talented as Torrey Smith, Givens is the only receiver on the depth chart with a similar skill set. Givens could become something of a situational deep threat, but there is little chance that a guy with a career best season Reception NEP total of 50.7 will replace the deep threat they lost in Torrey Smith.
Marlon Brown had a really good run to start the 2013 season, catching 5 touchdowns over his first 7 NFL games, but he only caught 2 touchdowns over his final 9 games. He started the season looking like a player who could replace Boldin and ended the season catching only 23 passes over his final 8 games. His Reception NEP total in 2013 ranked a modest 54th out of all receivers, but most of that production came in his first 7 games. This year, Marlon has only caught 46% of his targets and has struggled with drops. Brown has fallen down the depth chart, and it would not be a surprise if he was soon passed by Givens.
Crockett Gillmore seems to be Flacco's favorite option outside of Steve Smith, but he has only played 5 games this season, posting 18 catches for 234 yards. Outside of his Week 2 touchdown explosion in Oakland, Gillmore has not caught any more touchdowns. Gillmore has looked great at times, but he has also looked like a player who has a lot to learn -- two of his end zone targets have resulted in Joe Flacco interceptions. Gillmore is on pace for 655 receiving yards and 5.5 touchdowns, which are promising numbers for a young tight end -- but don't think he will be saving their season.
Unless the Ravens expect to have Breshad Perriman on the field sooner rather than later, this Ravens team is looking like one that will be picking in the top 10 next April. And the receiving situation is a big reason why.