Lamar Jackson signing a new contract won’t improve the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl chances. Not unless general manager Eric DeCosta also equips the franchise quarterback with better wide receivers.
Juju Smith-Schuster fits what the Ravens and Jackson need on a number of levels, according to Sports Illustrated’s Michael Fabiano: “Smith-Schuster knows the AFC North from his time in Pittsburgh, and he’d be one of the top three options in the pass attack for Lamar Jackson.”
A Pro-Bowler with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018, Smith-Schuster is coming off a 78-catch season for the Kansas City Chiefs. He stayed healthy, during the regular season at least, and proved he can still work the middle of the field, Jackson’s favorite area to target, better than most in the NFL.
Lamar Jackson Needs Proven Targets
As Fabiano noted, the Ravens can’t rely on many of Jackson’s current targets on the outside: “The jury is still out on Rashod Bateman as a pro, and their top wideout from 2022, Demarcus Robinson, is a free agent.”
Bateman’s injury history is already significant, despite him being in the pros for just two seasons. The player drafted 27th overall in 2021 has now missed 16 games out of 34 after landing on injured reserve back in November, with a foot problem requiring surgery.
As for Robinson, the former Chiefs burner impressed only in brief flashes, like when he caught nine passes for 128 yards against the Carolina Panthers in Week 11. His performance included this clutch catch to turn Jackson’s errant throw into a first down:
Robinson’s status as a pending free agent means the Ravens will still be looking for a leap from unheralded trio Devin Duvernay, James Proche and Tylan Wallace. Banking on the unproven again wouldn’t be good for Jackson, who will have a lot to prove, regardless of whether he signs a new long-term contract or agrees to play on the franchise tag.
Adding a wideout as sure-handed as Smith-Schuster would go a long way to either helping Jackson live up to fresh terms or impress potential suitors a year from now.
Juju Smith-Schuster Ideal for Ravens
Sure-handed receivers working between the numbers and turning short catches into bigger gains make Jackson better. Numbers from Football Outsiders show how often Jackson targets the middle:
Smith-Schuster makes sense for the Ravens because he dropped just six of 101 targets this season, per Pro Football Reference. The same source noted how the six-year veteran tallied 465 yards after the catch.
Pairing Smith-Schuster with All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews will open more inside passing lanes for Jackson to exploit. That’s how it’s worked with Smith-Schuster alongside Travis Kelce for the Chiefs, with Matt Lane of KCSN highlighting this notable example against the San Francisco 49ers:
Smith-Schuster’s been making plays like this, both in and out of the slot, since the Steelers drafted him in the second round back in 2017. He made 111 receptions during his second season, burning the Ravens for 11 catches and 138 yards across two games.
Injuries have been an issue, but Smith-Schuster played in 16 games and started 14 before the playoffs. A knee injury sidelined him during the 20-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship Game, but Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid told reporters he’s “very optimistic” the 26-year-old will feature in Super Bowl LVII against the Philadelphia Eagles.
A big performance in the big game would boost Smith-Schuster’s market value, which is already projected by Spotrac.com to be $14.6 million per year. It’s a hefty fee when the Ravens are trying to pay Jackson, but DeCosta can’t settle for attempting to fix the receiver problem on the cheap again.