Plan D for tight end? Ravens should be down to Martellus Bennett and draft

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens missed out on Jimmy Graham and Trey Burton early in free agency. On Monday night, the Ravens were unable to land Eric Ebron, who signed a two-year, $15 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts.

Now, what's Plan D for the Ravens in their search for a pass-catching tight end? Perhaps D stands for draft.

Martellus Bennett, 31, is the best available in free agency because he's one year removed from a career-high seven touchdowns and showed big-play ability throughout his career. From 2012 to 2016, he ranked fourth among tight ends with 318 catches and sixth in receiving yards with 3,441. A Pro Bowl player in 2014, he is equally effective as a receiver or a blocker.

But there were plenty of red flags in a bizarre 2017 season. Bennett announced his retirement in October (which didn't happen) and was subsequently waived by the Green Bay Packers in November for what the team described as an undisclosed shoulder injury. He was claimed by the New England Patriots the next day and appeared in two games before landing on injured reserve with shoulder and hamstring injuries. Bennett finished with 30 receptions for 286 yards and no touchdowns in nine games, which marked his worst season since becoming a starter in 2012.

Asked if the team's focus has shifted to tight end, general manager Ozzie Newsome said last week, "That could also be a position that we add to our roster, if possible."

Outside of Bennett, the other options in free agency are aging veterans who didn't stretch the field last season. Adding a downfield presence has become Baltimore's priority after signing two wide receivers in free agency.

Julius Thomas, 29, who was cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars, put together another disappointing season where he averaged less than 10 yards per catch. Injuries have taken a toll on Thomas, who just can't run like he once did.

Brent Celek, 33, who was released by the Philadelphia Eagles, is primarily a blocking tight end at this point of his career. He has failed to crack 30 catches in his last three seasons.

Benjamin Watson, 37, acknowledged he has contemplated retirement after leading Baltimore with 61 catches. But he averaged 8.6 yards per catch, which ranked No. 24 among NFL tight ends last season.

Whether Baltimore signs Bennett or brings back Watson, the Ravens have to draft a pass-catching tight end. While many analysts don't see a tight end getting selected in the first round, Baltimore can take one as early as the second round.

Penn State's Mike Gesicki is a pure pass-catching tight end who totaled 14 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Oklahoma's Mark Andrews is a big target (6-foot-5) and a big-play producer who averaged more than 15 yards per catch in each of his three seasons for the Sooners. South Carolina's Hayden Hurst will be a 25-year-old rookie because he played in the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor-league system, but he has excellent size, speed and ball skills.

The Ravens need to add more tight end targets because they return Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle, both of whom are considered blockers at this point. If Baltimore can add a viable veteran in Bennett and a young, athletic pass-catcher in the draft, the Ravens will strength the supporting cast for quarterback Joe Flacco, who has never hidden his affinity for throwing to tight ends.

Just six days into free agency, there are not many choices left at tight end for the Ravens and the rest of the NFL.