Ravens Trying to Replace Hollywood Brown

Former Baltimore Ravens WR Marquise Brown
Former Baltimore Ravens WR Marquise Brown
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Offseason - For this May round of Four Downs, we will be looking at each team's biggest remaining need as well as notable undrafted free agents who will be going to camp with each franchise. Here's a look at AFC North needs.

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Wide Receiver

Lost in all the hosannas for the Ravens' draft brilliance was the fact that the team is even less set at wide receiver than it was before the draft. Draft day departee Marquise "Hollywood" Brown was more nickname than productive receiver in Baltimore (in three seasons Brown finished 41st, 58th, and 88th among receivers in DYAR), but at least he made opponents respect his deep speed. The starters at the moment consist of Rashod Bateman, who had a promising rookie campaign despite a training camp injury (46th in DYAR), kick returner Devin Duvernay, and James Proche, who barely scraped past 200 receiving yards in 2021. For Lamar Jackson to return to anywhere near his MVP form he will need assistance from an unforeseen source.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Baltimore has kept a UDFA on the final 53-man roster in 17 of the last 18 seasons, and they signed a massive haul of 17 undrafted guys in order to prolong that success. Six, count 'em, six attack the shallow wideout pool, including Slade Bolden of Alabama, who worked underneath while his better-known teammates went deep; Raleigh Webb of the Citadel, whose strength and speed combination invited comparisons to Christian McCaffrey; and Makai Polk, who grabbed 105 passes in Mike Leach's Air Raid at Mississippi State. Offensive tackle Brodarious Hamm survived cancer to become a two-year starter in the SEC at Auburn and might have the best chance of the huge group to stick come September.

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Tight End

Cincy figured to grab a developmental tight end in the draft, but it didn't fall that way. That leaves newly signed Hayden Hurst as the lone move tight end on the roster. Hurst is a former first-round pick who was lost in the need to funnel balls to Kyle Pitts in Atlanta, as he had been with Mark Andrews in Baltimore.

Hurst can get up the seam; in 2019 and 2020, we charted Hurst with 11% and 15% of his targets as deep before Pitts took all those targets last season (Hurst charted exactly 0% deep throws a year ago). Being the lone catching threat at the position, with the Bengals' superb wideouts leaving Hurst with matchup advantages, should be a good setup for the former Gamecocks star. But if Hurst doesn't pan out or gets hurt, the Bengals are left with a blocker (Drew Sample) and a special teams ace (Mitchell Wilcox) as their tight ends, which would surely hinder even Cincinnati's explosive passing attack.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Long snapper Clark Harris, 38 years young, has been a rock on special teams since 2009, but the hirsute folk hero is officially on notice with the signing of Cal Adomitis, who won the award for best collegiate long snapper (yes, there is such a thing, and it's called the Patrick Mannelly Award) in 2022 at Pitt. Cincy also brought in an intriguing interior offensive line prospect in Ben Brown of Ole Miss, who would have been a mid-round pick but for a biceps tear suffered in October, and a defensive lineman with a fantastic name, Tariqious Tisdale. And the club went down to Myrtle Beach for a pair of Coastal Carolina prospects, wideout Jaivon Heiligh and running back Shermari Jones, who scored the winning touchdown in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl (which, like the Mannelly Award, you are just learning about here).

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Defensive Line

The front four remains a unit with plenty of question marks beyond All-World pass rusher Myles Garrett. With Jadeveon Clowney still in limbo, Chase Winovich, who flunked out of New England, is slated to get a shot at redemption in Browns Town opposite Garrett. Backing him up is third-round draft choice Alex Wright from Alabama-Birmingham, a young and long prospect who needs plenty of seasoning before making any impact. Inside there are a raft of choices without any obvious solutions. Jordan Elliott and Jags washout Taven Bryan are the starters for now, but good camp performances from second-year man Tommy Togiai or this year's fourth-round pick Perrion Winfrey of Oklahoma could change that. The Browns have been hunting for answers on their defensive front for a couple of years but have yet to come up with much prey.

(Ed. Note: Clowney was officially re-signed by the Browns this morning, which makes defensive tackle a bigger need than defensive end for now.)

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

The Browns went deep into the well for several of their undrafted signees. West Florida won the D3 National Championship in 2021, and safety D'Anthony Bell was a big part of that team. Big-bodied (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) corner Julius Faulk was signed out of tiny Delta State University, which may have been because the school is located in Cleveland—Cleveland, Mississippi, that is. Tyreke Smith was drafted by Seattle out of Ohio State; his older brother Malik is a 6-foot-6 former basketball player who played tight end at Fisk University. And the Browns signed a quarterback, though Felix Harper of Alcorn State is just 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, so he's closer to 15 cents than he is a full quarter.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Defensive Line

One can argue that the Steelers are living in a fantasy world if they believe the offensive tackle combo of Chuks Okorafor and Dan Moore (36 blown blocks as a rookie) is good enough to head into battle with, but at least both players are young with room to improve. The defensive front is shallow and getting long in the tooth, even if 33-year-old Cam Heyward remains an unblockable menace (10 sacks, 53 pressures in 2021).

At the other two spots, Pittsburgh is relying on a pair of players, Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, who combined for 57 snaps in 2021. Tuitt missed all of last season due to a combination of knee injury and mourning the tragic death of his brother. He has yet to commit to anything for the coming season—the team remains hopeful but vague whenever asked about Tuitt's status. Nose tackle Alualu was lost in Week 2 to a broken ankle and is entering his age-35 season. Behind them are journeyman Chris Wormley and third-round pick DeMarvin Leal of Texas A&M, a middling athlete who disappointed on tape, though playing end in a 3-4 front might be suited to his skill set. Obviously, the Steelers can still generate pass rush, but they were 27th against the run by DVOA last year. Unless Tuitt and Alualu return to form, that may not improve much.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Running back depth behind Najee Harris was the focus of Pittsburgh's UDFA class. Mateo Durant had an extremely productive career at Duke, including 11 touchdowns as a senior in Durham. He is a speedy (Blue) devil, and comparable to Pittsburgh legend Willie Parker, another UDFA, though Parker went to North Carolina and is required to despise Durant. The Steelers also grabbed a more punishing back in Jaylen Warren from Oklahoma State. They also brought in cornerback Chris Steele, who was a top recruit for USC but never really developed, and may have been signed purely for his last name.

Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN+.

Comments

26 comments, Last at 01 Jun 2022, 3:57pm

1 The Browns have been hunting…

The Browns have been hunting for answers on their defensive front for a couple of years but have yet to come up with much prey.

That's a strange metaphor.

And the Browns signed a quarterback, though Felix Harper of Alcorn State is just 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, so he's closer to 15 cents than he is a full quarter.

Has any team featured a pennyback?

Obviously, the Steelers can still generate pass rush, but they were 27th against the run by DVOA last year. Unless Tuitt and Alualu return to form, that may not improve much.

Does that matter? You were still better off passing against their 8th-ranked pass defense than running against their 27th-rated run defense.

\Was Jared Lorenzen a Susan B. Anthony?

2 Does that matter? You were…

Does that matter? You were still better off passing against their 8th-ranked pass defense than running against their 27th-rated run defense.

I disagree - the fact that their pass DVOA is "better" (and the net yards/attempt) than rushing is biased due to the fact that pass plays are far less homogenous than rushing plays, and becoming even less homogenous as teams find more ways to use passing plays to attack the same parts of the field as rushing plays used to. You really have to look at the ordinal rankings. The absolute rankings just won't make sense in comparison unless you know why teams are choosing to run the plays they do.

Opposing teams knew that the Steelers were more vulnerable against runs and they absolutely took advantage of it. They were one of only 2 teams in the top 10 of opponent rush attempts with a winning record - and the other team was the Chargers, with the 30th ranked rush defense.

7 Does running back Rashaad…

Does running back Rashaad Penny count as a pennyback?

(Also, in Ye Olden Dayes of leather helmets and single-wings, there actually was a position called three-quarters back. Really rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?)

8 Unless that was just a dumb…

Unless that was just a dumb name for a tailback, the only formation that comes to mind that could even have a 3/4 back would be the Maryland I or something like that, and you wanted to give that middle running back a name.

11 In a rugby back line the…

In a rugby back line the Centres and Wings are sometimes still called the three-quarters, as they will be further back than the halfbacks (scrum and fly-half) but ahead of the full-back. And in New Zealand the fly half was sometimes called the five-eighth!

3 This is sneakily the hardest…

This is sneakily the hardest division for me to get a handle on. I can talk myself into optimism for 3 of these teams and maybe 4 if Pickett really pops like Big Ben or Herbert did as rookie's. 

Safest bet is probably Baltimore, who should enjoy more pristine health. Watson hasn't played in a year - does that make him better because hes fresher or worse because he's rustier? Otherwise, the roster is pretty good.

And then there's Cincy, who I am down on in a macro sense, but could easily buck that depending on how Burrow improves. 

I get that the West is fascinating because of all of the QB gyrations, but the North feels like the most interesting to me given the supportings casts and QBs involved. Since I root for a team in probably the most ho hum, depressing division in football, I'll probably be keeping an eye on this division a lot. 

6 Watson hasn't played in a…

Watson hasn't played in a year - does that make him better because hes fresher or worse because he's rustier?

Even ignoring the year off Watson would be interesting - his 2020 was dramatically better than 18/19. If the Browns just get 18-19 Watson, I think they'll struggle. Adding the year off plus the possible suspension totally makes me throw away any ideas on what the Browns will be like this year. Plus their overall plan looks so bizarre that I can't take any of their other decisions seriously.

9 Historically, rust hasn't…

Historically, rust hasn't been much of an issue for guys returning from injury, and even if he's suspended, he can still practice with the team(I think). So any rust should go away fairly quickly. The nighmare scenario's for the Browns are:

1)An actual criminal charge sticks and he either gets a long suspension or incarceration and it's basicly over. Even they dump him, they are toast from the cap hit.

2) 2020 was a career year rather than a leap, or he just forgot what he did with a year off.  The contract is one thing if he's a ~1200 DYAR guy...at ~800, well, he's a more expensive Derek Carr then. 

Their best case for them is he continues improving of course. 

13 I mean, to me, the nightmare…

I mean, to me, the nightmare scenario for the Browns is literally any suspension that kicks him from playoffs this year because this year's their best option. They've only got 4 years with Watson and they are stupidly against the wall next year cap-wise. It's not that they'll like, default or anything, but they're just not going to be serious players in free agency.

I just don't understand the Browns. There's just not that much talent there and they pick up a top-end QB for what will likely be only 3 years. In a division that could easily be one of the hardest in football! (n.b. one of)

18 I just don't understand the…

I just don't understand the Browns.

Jimmy Haslam, man.

The "plan" I dare say is rather obvious: their roster right now is as good as it's going to be for some time, so go all-in on an upgrade to an elite QB and take their best shot at a Lombardi trophy in 2022 and only 2022, knowing a painful cap hangover is coming either way.

That the QB they opted to go all-in is almost certainly facing a suspension - and quite possibly an extra-long one, if Ginger Hammer doesn't take kindly to their stunt with the yearly salary - as well as a nonzero chance of literally going to prison... Jimmy Haslam, man.

There's just not that much talent there

This, though, I really can't agree with. QB volatility aside, o-line and defensive secondary look excellent, and those are the two most important non-QB units. Plus the elite pass rusher, an elite-ish receiver, a flotilla of great RBs for whatever that's worth, and no glaring weaknesses (except maybe DT, as noted here) - their non-QB roster is as good as anyone's (this side of Los Angeles, anyway). It's the correct decision to shoot their shot, they just shot it extra-riskily.

for what will likely be only 3 years

Barring massive suspension/prison sentence, or major injury, he'll certainly be extended, and I'd wager with a relatively normal bonus-salary breakdown once they see what a terrible idea the current contract is. Or, well, that's what they'd do if they were a normal franchise; this is Jimmy Haslam's Browns, so he'll probably can everybody and bring in Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel or something.

19  This, though, I really can…

This, though, I really can't agree with. QB volatility aside, o-line and defensive secondary look excellent, and those are the two most important non-QB units. Plus the elite pass rusher, an elite-ish receiver, a flotilla of great RBs for whatever that's worth, and no glaring weaknesses (except maybe DT, as noted here) 

I meant long-term. This year, I totally agree with it... except for the insanity of the risk of Watson not even being available this year. They're just not going to be able to hold all of that talent - they're fairly top heavy. That being said some of the recent rookies are promising, although you'd like to see more at DE long-term. 

But you also have to factor in that they gave up three first round picks for Watson. So not only are they going to shed some of the talent they have now, they won't be acquiring new high-end talent, either. And like I said while I like some of their rookies, I don't like them that much. And they were already a bit sparse due to tossing picks prior to this.

Hence why I said it's weird - they're going all in for '22... and we might find out they've got nothing in the next few weeks. Just weird.

Barring massive suspension/prison sentence, or major injury, he'll certainly be extended, 

That's not up to the Browns entirely - Watson gets a say in it, too. I have serious doubts that Watson will want to stay in Cleveland. Because (as you noted)... Jimmy Haslam.

20 "stupidly against the wall…

"stupidly against the wall next year cap-wise. It's not that they'll like, default or anything, but they're just not going to be serious players in free agency" ... "I just don't understand the Browns. There's just not that much talent there and they pick up a top-end QB "

 

You literally have to swing for the fences on QB in this situation, even if it means that your rollover is killed i.e. "stupidly against the wall" by having to keep paying Baker when he wasn't going to get it done.

Related note: Njoku gets paid, $14mm/yr for 4 years (effectively 2 years guaranteed.)

22 I totally get the "swing for…

I totally get the "swing for the fences" bit, it just feels like a bad pitch to take a swing at (to continue the metaphor). It's not just the cash difference between Watson and Mayfield. That part's fine. But they also gave up three first round picks, and those picks are from a practical perspective the only way to add talent. And they weren't in a good position pick wise to give them up, since they were already slightly behind the curve because of the OBJ trade.

Really, they've been "swinging for the fences" ever since Mayfield came on board. Which is part of the problem - they've been acting like Mayfield was a star since Day 1 rather than continuing to stockpile picks and talent. Which means really, the problem was that they couldn't see Mayfield's limitations, and only saw potential.

I mean, the Njoku signing is another part of that. You've got to start signing value guys at this point. I'm not saying Njoku can't be a great tight end with Watson there, but he can't outplay a $14M/yr contract. So at best he'll be a "push" in terms of value, and you can't afford that.

24 Unfortunately, either 3 1st…

Unfortunately, either 3 1st rounders, or 2 1st rounders + the lesser QB, is the going rate, and HOU wasn't going for the latter (at least for now) with the desire to develop Mills.  I do agree that it's like giving up 3 Greg Newsomes or 3 Jeremiah Owusu-Koromas, now that the team is better at drafting than the Danny Shelton/Cam Erving/Brandon Weeden days.

The Njoku signing has been pretty overwhelmingly panned locally, and personally I didn't even want the Browns to bother with his 5th year option, but Stefanski/Van Pelt are insistent on lots of multi-TE packages even though they don't exactly have Gronk and the serial killer (though I like Harrison Bryant, at least on the rookie wage scale.)

25 Paying right ends has to be…

Paying right ends has to be one of the worst roi contracts in the NFL.

Most tight ends are replaceable cogs. Even teams sporting a weak tight end group can scheme them off the field, something you really cannot do with another position group. 

At any one time, there seems to be at most 3 game changing tight ends in the league that truly merit a large contract. David Njoku is not one of them.

26 I'm not saying the Browns…

I'm not saying the Browns got screwed on the trade. It's completely reasonable. I just don't think the chance of it working out long-term with that kind of a cost is likely. A few years ago this would've been a slam-dunk of a trade. The Browns had plenty of draft resources, they could afford it. Now? Not so much. 

I mean, they have top-end DE, QB, WR, CB, and TE contracts. In terms of raw AAV it's ~$125M/yr for those five players. And, again - all this, without draft picks in the near future. I just don't see it working out the way the Browns hope.

5 Looking forward

Pittsburgh WRs next year could really realistically look like

  • Y4 Claypool
  • Y2 Pickens
  • Y2 Tyreek Lite
  • Y1 Jordan Addison
  • Y5 Gunner O

Love the way they built it the room. Rookies this year were great picks. 

10 Chase

Only a year ago Chase Winovich was "obviously a better pick" than Rashan Gary.

14 So, what is Lamar Jackson…

So, what is Lamar Jackson doing? He won't negotiate a long-term contract, fine. But then he skips OTAs? Typically a player skips those to get something he wants, but in this case, what's the plan? Is he skipping them just because he can?

That situation is getting weirder and weirder.

16 He... simply doesn't want to…

He... simply doesn't want to talk about it. He has been treating his new deal like a college senior waiting until the last day to sign up for classes. Meanwhile the team can't wait to hand over $40M+/yr they already have earmarked for him.

21 Absolutely anything is plausible

I wish someone knew what Lamar is after and what the disagreements are between him and the Ravens.

Is he looking for 60 million a year and fully guaranteed with options every year?

The Ravens brass wish that too, I'm sure.  Anything is plausible. 

A vocal segment on the Ravens fan forums say that Lamar wants to GTFO of Roman's offense, the way his friend Marquise Brown did. 

Some of his teammates say he's just a different cat.  Marlon Humphrey hosts a little one-on-one talk show on Ravens dotcom, where he sits down with a teammate and interviews him, long-form (or medium long), called Studio 44.  (Humphrey's jersey number is 44.)  Whenever Marlon & his guest talk about Lamar, they say things like, he's different.  He don't care about money.  All he talks about is winning the Super Bowl.  Etc.

There is a certain school of thought, kind of an old-school perspective, that if you keep your nose down and focus on what's in front of you, like sharpening your skills (Lamar's been working extensively with Adam Dedeaux of 3DQB, Tom House's old outfit, this offseason and last) and winning each game, then things like Pro Bowls and money take care of themselves.  I'm not endorsing that view when applied to this next contract extension; but it does sound like the sort of thing Lamar woud subscribe to.

Things haven't gone the way Lamar probably anticipated they were going to go, when the 2019 reg-season ended and before those playoffs started.  Maybe he's pissed off or in denial, and hasn't wanted to come to the bargaining table from a position of relative weakness (compared to when he was on top of the world just two seasons ago).

It wouldn't shock me if Lamar wanted to pull a Flacco: go into the final year of his contract without an extension, then win a Super Bowl and pound on Bisciotti's desk and say show me the money.  It worked for the last first-round QB in Baltimore, so hey why not me?

No one knows anything.  Strange situation.  This is one of those times when, as a fan, you wish this particular player had an agent.  Things would be a lot more straightforward: he wants more money, or he wants to get out of dodge, or whatever.

23 The Ravens other Biggest Post-Draft Need

The Ravens other Biggest Post-Draft Need is at Edge Rusher across from Odafe Oweh.

When the Za'Darius Smith signing fell thru / was reneged on / whatever, the Ravens D went from scary-looking to okay-looking.  Tyus Bowser is the returning OLB across form Oweh.  He had 7 sacks and 19 other pressures on the season, which is not bad from a raw totals perspective.  Maybe he's enough?

The company line is that David Ojabo will be ready to play at some point this season, maybe around Halloween.  Hopefully that's true.  But there will already be 8 games on the books by then; and anyway the chance seems low that he'll be at full effectiveness, esp after missing all of OTAs and training camp.