Ravens wide receiver Marquise Brown’s early career in Baltimore has played out in microcosm during the first week of training game.
During the first two days, the player nicknamed “Hollywood” was lighting it up and showing the potential for having a breakout season in only his third year. By the end of the second day, Brown left practice early in what head coach John Harbaugh thought was a precautionary move because of slight hamstring injury.
Brown has disappeared like vapor, not participating in the last three practices. And that is a concern because Harbaugh didn’t give a time frame for his return only to say the injury was more serious than he was initially told.
It’s nothing major yet because a lot of receivers, defensive backs and running backs have muscle issues in training camp, especially speedsters like Brown. But when it repeatedly happens year after year, it causes a lot of eyebrows to be raised and some heads to be scratched.
When will the Ravens ever be able to count on Brown?
The irony is that he was a major piece of the offense heading into the offseason. Everything was centered around the running game and the athletic ability of quarterback Lamar Jackson, but the Ravens already had a top-notch tight end in Mark Andrews. A major need was to find a big-bodied wide receiver to play outside opposite the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Brown.
The Ravens signed Sammy Watkins on April 2, and so far the eight-year veteran has been the team’s top receiver in training camp. But with Jackson out for possibly another week for testing positive for COVID-19 and now Brown, some of the playbook has to be put on the backburner.
Plays can be installed, but it’s not the same until the players they were designed for run them.
Brown was one of those players. This year, he didn’t come out in advance with some video detailing about how he had gained 10 to 15 pounds and had undergone an Arnold Schwarznegger training program.
But he was stronger. He was physical and could get off the line of scrimmage when defensive backs pressed him. There were times when he’d push off, burst, then push off a defender again only to turn and run a short rout for a 10- to 15-yard gain.
He appeared to finally figure out hand placement; not trying to short arm or T-Rex passes allowing the ball to get into his body. His arms were always extended, his hands out and formed like a catcher’s mitt to absorb the ball.
He was putting together those “oh, oh” moments, as in, oh, oh, this could be the season. Even Harbaugh was optimistic.
“As far as catching the ball? I think that’s a big part of it, for sure,” Harbaugh said recently of Brown’s development. “That’s something we’ve worked really hard on. The biggest areas of improvement I think are going to show up in the next week or so. So, I’m looking forward to seeing that. But what I anticipate seeing, and what we saw in the OTAs are takeoff … Stance, start, takeoff and then route running at the top of the break. I think those things have improved. I think we’ll see they’ve improved dramatically.”
Brown has the ability to bring excitement to an offense. He is fast enough to play outside, and his elusiveness makes him tough to cover inside with a No. 3 cornerback or safety. He can carry the ball on options or end arounds and turn short hitch or slant routes into long gains if used properly. Matched on the opposite side of another speedster like Devin Duvernay, that could create a lot of room in the middle for receivers like Watkins, James Proche II or Andrews.
One thing we knew for certain: The Ravens were prepared to improve on a passing game which was ranked No. 32 — dead last — in the NFL last season, and they brought in two new assistant coaches in passing game specialist Keith Williams and receivers coach Tee Martin to help.
Their emphasis on technique instead of installing plays was clearly noticeable in OTAs and the mandatory minicamp. Watkins is providing the veteran leadership.
“It’s exciting,” said Brown, a day before he was injured. “To work with the new coaches, with new receivers, everybody pushing each other [and] everybody wanting to be the best they can be, it’s exciting and fun. We attack all bases from route running, to releases, to blocking. Whatever we have to do, we make sure we get it done before we even get with the defense. So, that’s been a good addition.
“Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has a playbook. Everything we’re still running is there. We just have to perfect what he has us doing. Once we show that in practice, then they’ll get more comfortable to call it in a game. So, it’s on us to just show what we can do.”
You could sense an excitement. It’s hard to predict if it was all going to come together, but at least there was a plan.
There still is, but no one is sure when and how Brown might be involved. He gets hot and then there is always a cool down period, usually because of injury. He started in only 11 of 14 games in 2019 but finished with 46 catches for 584 yards and seven touchdowns. He started 14 of 16 games last season and had 68 catches for 769 yards and eight touchdowns.
Last year was when Brown had his infamous tweet about the Ravens passing game having soldiers, but the team not using them properly. He then had a couple of dropped passes in following games but finished 2021 strong. Going into this training camp, the Ravens had high hopes because he was fully healthy following a Lisfranc injury in 2019 and a shortened preseason schedule because of COVID-19 last year.
Now, the Ravens and Brown are in a holding pattern again.
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He didn’t even make it through three full days of training camp.