Shortly after this season is over, and if everyone still standing remains healthy, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta will breathe a sigh of relief.
The Ravens finally have a good, young group of receivers and a potential No. 1 in rookie Rashod Bateman. That might not sound like a major accomplishment to some organizations, but it is in Baltimore.
The disappointments have been numerous, including first-round failures like Florida’s Travis Taylor in 2000, Oklahoma’s Mark Clayton five years later and Central Florida’s Breshad Perriman in 2015. At least Taylor and Clayton were from big-time programs, but UCF? Let’s just chalk that up to former Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome having a bad day.
But that’s all in the past.
Bateman can play, as can second-year receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche II. Marquise Brown is ascending midway through his third season and, combined with fourth-year tight end Mark Andrews, the Ravens haven’t had a passing game this complete since 1996 and 1997 when they had receivers Michael Jackson, Derrick Alexander and Jermaine Lewis.
“The whole passing game has gotten better, it’s fun to watch,” said Lewis, who played at the University of Maryland and still resides in the Baltimore area. ”It takes a while to adjust to the NFL game but in three years, if they stay together, they are going to be special.”
The Ravens have had some decent duos, like Clayton and Derrick Mason in the mid to late 2000s, and there was the dynamic pair of Anquan Boldin and Mason in 2010. Even though both were in the twilight of their careers, Boldin had 64 catches for 837 yards and seven touchdowns and Mason finished with 61 receptions, 802 yards and seven scores. Both averaged 13.1 yards per catch.
Alexander, Jackson and Lewis is the best trio yet. Lewis was only a rookie in 1996 when Jackson posted career numbers with 76 catches for 1,201 yards. He tied Tony Martin for the most receiving touchdowns that year with 14. Alexander was just starting to come into his own, catching 62 passes for 1,099 yards and averaging 17.7 yards a catch.
Jackson was 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, Alexander was 6-2 and weighed 195, and both could fly. Once former Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda put Lewis in the slot in his second season, few teams matched up with the Ravens. In 1997, all three averaged more than 13 yards a catch.
“Of course, I am biased,” said Lewis, laughing about comparing the present group with his trio. “Michael Jackson was one of the best at route running. He could break down a big cornerback or a little cornerback. He was tough. [Alexander] was also a great route runner and could run that comeback. I was explosive up the middle, and if guys had to get their hands off me after 5 yards like they do today I would have been even more dangerous.”
Lewis spends a lot of time tutoring high school receivers at Under Armour All-American camps. He isn’t sure about the Ravens’ talent level yet, which is why DeCosta isn’t ready to exhale until the season is over. Bateman already missed the first five games with a groin injury and Brown, at 5-9 and 180 pounds, has been injury-prone, including missing Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears with a thigh issue.
Bateman is 6-1, weighs 193 pounds and snags footballs out of the air like former Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr. He has already shown elusiveness and the ability to gain yards after the catch. He can be a possession guy — his first 11 catches resulted in first downs — or a game-changer.
Brown has made great progress from a year ago. He consistently makes catches with his arms and fingers outstretched and away from his body. His route running has improved, and while he doesn’t have that great “shake” like Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill, Brown can plant, accelerate and run away from tacklers with his burst. The only downside on Brown (52 catches, 719 yards, two touchdowns) is that he still can be intimidated like he was last Thursday night when Miami defenders were extremely physical.
Duvernay (23 catches, 203 yards, two touchdowns) is a little bigger and taller than Brown, and just as fast. Like Brown, he can play outside or in the slot and can draw a lot of mismatches with No. 3 safeties or cornerbacks in the middle. Proche has only eight catches for 118 yards, but he has some of the best hands on the team — which he proved with a big preseason. It will be interesting to see how much playing time he can earn in a crowded Ravens receivers room, which also includes Miles Boykin and Sammy Watkins (22 catches, 347 yards). He can become a critical third-down possession type like Julian Edelman was with quarterback Tom Brady when both were in New England.
If you combine this group with Andrews (56 catches, 696 yards, four touchdowns) and the continued development of quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens might be on to something special. Few tight ends can work the middle or deep end of a field like Andrews, who signed a $56 million extension before the season. His ability to be a threat from anywhere on the field opens up a lot of potential areas.
Of course, all of this progress might be hampered by the Ravens’ offensive line. The pass protection has been poor at times, and all these weapons become nullified if Jackson doesn’t have time to throw. But that can be the project for the 2022 NFL draft in April.
Right now, the Ravens need some time and space to grow.
“Hollywood has good feet, runs good routes and this year is coming back and attacking the ball, which is one of the hardest things to learn,” Lewis said. “With his speed, he is able to push a defensive back deep, then come back to the ball, which allows him to get so much separation. Duvernay? Anybody that can do returns and lead the NFL, you know I like them. I’d like to see a little more explosion out of Bateman, but he has a great feel for the game. Plus, he is going to look a step slower being around so much speed with Hollywood and Duvernay.
“There is still a lot to be determined and we’ll see how this formula goes, but they are going to get better at it. It might all come together this year. They are still young, and I don’t want to jinx them, but they could become a major problem for a lot of teams.”
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