- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Ravens reporter
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The Baltimore Ravens return their top seven offensive linemen and re-signed starting running back Justin Forsett on Thursday. Now, the Ravens' attention has to turn toward getting quarterback Joe Flacco some weapons.
The loss of wide receiver Torrey Smith (49ers) and tight end Owen Daniels (Broncos) in free agency has left a couple of holes in the passing game. They were two of Flacco's top three targets last season, accounting for 28 percent of the receptions, 32 percent of the receiving yards and 55 percent of the touchdowns. Only two returning players caught more than one touchdown pass from Flacco last season: Steve Smith (six) and Kamar Aiken (three).
The Ravens will likely address wide receiver and tight end in the draft at the end of April, but general manager Ozzie Newsome doesn't like to have pressing needs when making his picks. Signing free agents to fill those voids allows the Ravens to take the best player available in the draft.
Based on the Ravens' history in free agency, the targeted players should be wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Stevie Johnson and tight end Scott Chandler. All three are salary-cap cuts, and the Ravens prefer to sign them because unrestricted free agents (players whose contracts have expired) count against your ability to accrue compensatory picks.
Since 2010, 12 of the Ravens' 16 free-agent signings (75 percent) have been cap casualties. That would indicate that wide receivers Michael Crabtree, Cecil Shorts, Kenny Britt and Nate Washington along with tight end Jermaine Gresham will not be pursued by the Ravens.
Bowe and Johnson are the type of experienced, big-bodied receivers that the Ravens' offense has lacked for a couple of seasons. Both were released Thursday and reach the open market at a time when the price for wide receivers should drop significantly from the $8 million-plus per season which is the average per year for Smith, Jeremy Maclin and Andre Johnson.
Bowe, 30, hasn't topped 60 receptions or produced more than 801 yards receiving over the past three seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. But he's also had Matt Cassel, Brady Quinn, Alex Smith and Chase Daniel throwing him the ball during that time. The Cleveland Browns are reportedly interested in Bowe, according to ESPN Browns reporter Jeremy Fowler.
Johnson, 28, caught 35 passes for 435 yards and three touchdowns on 50 targets in 13 games last season for the San Francisco 49ers, which was the seven-year veteran's lowest output since his second season. This came after he averaged 72 catches and scored 26 touchdowns in four seasons (2010 to 2013) with the Buffalo Bills.
The free-agent market for tight ends is a very limited one. Outside of Chandler, the other top salary-cap cuts are Anthony Fasano, James Casey and Zach Miller. Chandler, 29, makes the most sense for the Ravens, who need a pass-catching tight end. He has averaged 45 catches and scored 17 touchdowns over the past four seasons before getting cut by the Bills on Wednesday.
The Ravens won't be able to outbid teams because of their limited cap space. But what they can offer is an opportunity to make an impact on a perennial playoff team.
The loss of wide receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Owen Daniels in free agency has left a couple of holes in the passing game for the Ravens.