On Tuesday afternoon, the Baltimore Ravens will have a crucial decision to make at the wide receiver position.
Should they pursue Jacoby Jones and try to keep him in Baltimore, or look at other free agent options at wide receiver?
With Baltimore still struggling mightily to find a true No. 1 receiver – or at least a No. 2 receiver opposite Torrey Smith – re-upping Jones’ contract for a few more seasons in Baltimore wouldn’t fix that problem.
However, after a fairly underrated 2013 season with the team, Jones may provide more value than perceived for a struggling Ravens pass attack.
Never seen as more than an NFL offense’s third-best receiver, Jones has embraced that role well, and asserted himself as Baltimore’s second-best receiver last season, more so by default than anything else.
One of the main priorities for the Ravens this offseason is to upgrade a middling wide receiver corps, with the draft being the most enticing means of improvement.
But that shouldn’t keep the Ravens from having interest in Jones, who if signed at the right price, would create a valuable 3-4 duo at wide receiver with Marlon Brown, assuming the Ravens can bring in a better starting-caliber receiver.
In a wide receiver free agent market that includes prime names such as Eric Decker and Hakeem Nicks, Jones is a middle-of-the-line option whose market value is yet to be determined.
In 2012, the Ravens signed Jones to a two-year deal worth $6.5 million, and after a brief stint in Baltimore that included a breakout 2012 campaign, Jones has at least maintained his value, if not improved it.
That could put Jones in position to earn a deal that would net the 29-year old around $3.5 million.
Given Baltimore’s generous cap situation at the moment, Jones could be in play, but he’s far from a priority.
Last season, Jones helped drop the label of return specialist by asserting himself as a consistent, reliable pass catcher.
In fact, Jones’ 2013 season may have been his best career as a receiver.
Playing in just 12 games, his 37 catches, 455 yards and two touchdowns weren’t anything spectacular. However, Jones looked much more complete as a receiver than in 2012, and repeatedly proved to be a safety valve for quarterback Joe Flacco.
The two appeared to develop a rhythm throughout the season, and Flacco seemed more inclined to favor Jones in tight situations, where Jones was forced to make in-traffic catches such as this.
Flacco’s trust in Jones wasn’t more obvious against the Detroit Lions in Week 15 of last season.
Facing a 3rd & 15 down by one with just over two minutes to go, the Ravens were in a dire situation on their own 28-yard line.
Instead of a short pass to set up for a more manageable fourth down to extend the game, Flacco and the offense opted to take a shot at Detroit’s zone coverage and push the ball downfield.
That led to Flacco calling Jones’ number.
With five Lions defenders within about a five-yard radius, Jones still made the in-traffic grab and picked up more than enough yards for the first down en route to a Baltimore win.
Flacco and Jones had a noticeable chemistry as the season progressed, much more than anyone would’ve thought after this drop by Jones in the final minutes of the 2012 Divisional Round game against the Denver Broncos.
It’s easy to say, “Get Joe Flacco new weapons” and that is true, but delivering Flacco too many new pass catchers is a risky practice.
Last season, Flacco struggled to ever find a groove with his new targets such as Dallas Clark, Brandon Stokley (when healthy) and even Marlon Brown despite his impressive rookie campaign.
The Ravens certainly need to add at least two new roster-caliber receivers to the roster, but that shouldn’t prevent them from retaining incumbents, mainly Jones, in order to make sure Flacco has an established rapport with a few of his receivers.
If 2013 was any indication of what’s to come, the Flacco/Jones combination could be one that steadily improves each year if Jones returns to Baltimore.
Plus, losing Jones would also leave the Ravens with the undesirable task of finding a new kick returner.
No player currently on the roster could take over as the primary return man, and Jones is one of the best in the business at that job.
Those two facts make Jones a worthy option as Baltimore’s return man moving forward, as his production mildly dipped after a stellar 2012 campaign that included four total returns for touchdowns (three kick returns [one in playoffs] and one punt return).
When a team has a lethal weapon to change a game like this, it’s hard to let that slip away.
Jones’ combination of return ability and recent development at wide receiver puts the Ravens in a tough situation once free agency begins.
How much are the Ravens willing to pay for Jones?
On the open market, the intrigue of adding Jones’ return ability will entice other teams, but if the Ravens can re-sign him to a deal similar to the one he received from the team two offseasons ago, it can be considered a win.
With ample cap space, signing Jones to a similar deal would be far from overspending, and it would shore up both the kick return position and one of Baltimore’s backup wide receiver positions for the 2014 season.
Having Jones, Brown and Smith locked up would be a solid start to the rebuild at wide receiver, and wouldn’t prevent the Ravens from finding a starting-caliber receiver in either free agency or the draft.
Jones’ value only goes so far, though, and overpaying for a return stud with some offensive capability isn’t a smart move, so the market will determine whether or not he could return to Baltimore in 2014.
But for the right price, reuniting Jones with his former head coach Gary Kubiak would be a step in the right direction for the Ravens in free agency.