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Ravens found a tough competitor and draft sleeper in SMU wide receiver James Proche | COMMENTARY

Columnist Mike Preston and Ravens beat writer Jonas Shaffer discuss their evaluation of the Ravens 2020 draft picks.

The Ravens spent one of their recent draft days raving about receiver Texas’ Devin Duvernay, but the other pick to keep an eye on is Southern Methodist wideout James Proche.

He is the sleeper in the Ravens’ 2020 draft class.

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Duvernay was a third-round pick and one of the fastest players in college football, while Proche was a sixth-round selection. But if you watch film on both players, Duvernay ran a lot of hitches, double moves and go routes.

Proche (pronounced pro-SHAY) can run all the routes on the passing tree with precision. He is a threat inside the red zone because he attacks the ball at its highest point, which makes him an ideal target on fade patterns. The Ravens might have gotten Proche at a bargain, even though they did some minor trading to select him.

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“These two guys are talented players we didn’t have a year ago,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We have one guy [Duvernay] that can run like crazy and make all kinds of catches. We have another guy [Proche] who can really run routes and has a feel for getting open and catch the ball like crazy.”

Let’s just talk about Proche.

The Ravens already have another Duvernay type on the roster in Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. Both are small, fast and gain a lot of yards after the catch. Like Duvernay and Brown, Proche played in the slot last season, but he has the size (5 feet 11, 201 pounds), speed (40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds) and strong hands to play on the outside.

The Ravens have Miles Boykin on one side, but the rest of the receivers, including veteran Willie Snead IV, are slot players. Harbaugh says that all the players are interchangeable, but Proche could give quarterback Lamar Jackson another big target inside the opponents’ 20-yard line other than Boykin and tight end Mark Andrews.

“Basically, it just comes down to competitiveness and ‘want-to,’” Proche said. “I try to compete in every aspect of my game, whether if you want me at pass protection, or punt return, or kick return, slot, outside — whatever you need me to do — I’m going to compete. Blocking is a huge part of the game. I like claiming myself as a complete receiver, and that comes with it. If there’s something to be good at in the wide receiver position, I want to do it to a high level.”

Proche caught 111 passes last season for 1,225 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also had a team-leading 1,423 all-purpose yards and returned 17 punts for 164 yards. The Ravens are in desperate need of a punt returner, averaging only 8.2 yards without a score in 2019.

When the Ravens won each of their Super Bowl trophies, they had good return specialists: Jermaine Lewis in 2000 and Jacoby Jones in 2012.

They need a difference-maker.

“I think with James, he certainly has more [of a] return history, in terms of punt returns,” said Joe Hortiz, the Ravens director of player personnel. “That definitely factored in. When you look at him, he’s very, very good at getting back there, judging it, catching it.”

Proche, 23, appears to be mature beyond his age. During a Zoom call with the media Monday, he used all the coach’s phrases and even thought that “I’m a competitor” was going to be put on his gravestone.

He wasn’t phony. He was sincere.

Maybe his perspective is different than a lot of college players because Proche suffered acute kidney failure during a high school practice in 2014. It apparently started with dehydration and became severe after the use of a common pain reliever.

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Proche thought that the abdominal pains were from intense workouts. He spent two days in intensive care and another week in the hospital before being allowed to leave.

The illness didn’t stop him from having great success at SMU, and apparently the Ravens thought a lot of other teams might overlook him.

They did.

“I talked to every team about the issue, just to let them know that it wasn’t an issue,” Proche said. “I’ve never missed a practice or a game at SMU for that reason, for any reason. I just wanted to reiterate that to teams. As for as in my life, I try to see things as they are and move on from them and see the lessons that I can learn.

“And the lesson that I learned from that is I’ve always tried to put my Superman cape on — whether it was in pads or out of pads. I’ve never showed any weakness, and that was the moment to where I had to learn to really lean on my family, the people around me that care about me, and just giving all my trust to God. I feel like as football players and athletes, we tend to call on invincibility. God tends to show you and humble you in ways that you didn’t even expect. So, I just take it as that.”

It’s his faith that keeps him strong, but also the sleeper in the Ravens’ draft.

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