In early December, during his weekly Thursday news conference, Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman introduced what he called “the vault,” a highly classified repository of exotic plays for second-year wide receiver (and maybe running back) Devin Duvernay. Three days later, Roman opened it. Kind of.
In a 20-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Duvernay ran short, intermediate and deep routes. On one presnap motion, he took an outside handoff around the corner. On another, he was used as a misdirect before an inside handoff. On others, he was the designated run fake on play-action drop-backs. Duvernay hadn’t quite become Deebo Samuel, the San Francisco 49ers’ marauding hybrid wide receiver, or Cordarrelle Patterson, the Atlanta Falcons’ unlikely wide receiver turned running back, but he was more of a chess piece in Week 13 than he’d ever been.
And the results were … fine. Duvernay had two catches on three targets for 21 yards. His one carry, an 8-yard run for a first down, was wiped out by an illegal-shift penalty. One fake handoff to Duvernay on a “jet” motion play — nearly full-speed motion across the formation — led to an 18-yard carry for running back Devonta Freeman. Other presnap movements opened up throwing lanes for quarterback Lamar Jackson, who sometimes capitalized and other times did not or could not. The offense finished with 326 total yards in the defeat, its fourth fewest all season.
As the Ravens watch the NFL playoffs from home, Duvernay’s role has become a flashpoint in the simmering offseason debates over Roman’s offense. In leading the 49ers to Sunday’s NFC championship game against the Los Angeles Rams, Samuel has inspired wonder and envy. Now every fan base wants a Deebo. Especially in Baltimore. Especially with Duvernay.
“I think anytime people kind of approach some uncharted territory, it kind of opens people’s minds,” 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel told reporters two weeks ago. “But if you’ve watched any of the draft coverage the last couple of years, people have been trying to find the next Deebo. The problem is, there’s one Deebo. And maybe that opportunity will open it up for other guys with his skill sets. But he’s a rare, rare player.”
In his breakthrough third season, Samuel became the first player in the NFL’s modern era to record at least 1,300 receiving yards and 300 rushing yards. He also became the first player since the league’s 1970 merger to lead his team in receiving yards (1,405, fifth in the NFL), receiving touchdowns (six) and rushing touchdowns (eight). He lines up as a wide receiver and a running back and jokingly calls himself a “wide back.” There’s no one quite like him.
As a draft prospect, though, Duvernay seemed like a reasonable approximation. In 2018, during his final season at South Carolina, Samuel had 62 catches for 882 yards, averaged 9.7 yards after the catch and led all Southeastern Conference receivers with 19 broken tackles after the catch, according to Sports info Solutions. A year later, in Duvernay’s last year at Texas, he had 106 catches for 1,386 yards, averaged 6.9 yards after the catch and led all Big 12 Conference receivers with 17 broken tackles after the catch.
At the scouting combine, Samuel measured in at 5 feet 11, 214 pounds, with a 4.48-second 40-yard dash. The 49ers took him in the second round, No. 36 overall. Duvernay was slightly shorter (5-10), considerably thinner (200 pounds) and definitely faster over 40 yards (4.39 seconds). The Ravens took him in the third round, No. 92 overall. Afterward, general manager Eric DeCosta said Duvernay is “almost like a running back with the football.”
What’s separated Samuel from Duvernay and every other NFL receiver he’s been compared to, though, is also what distinguished him at South Carolina: He is not easily tackled. In 2018, Samuel forced a broken or missed tackle on an incredible 45.2% of his catches for the Gamecocks, according to SIS. Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore, one of the sport’s most elusive players that season, finished with a 35.1% rate. Duvernay, in 2019, was at 24.8%.
Samuel’s make-you-miss skill set, a unique package of power and acceleration, has translated in his three years in San Francisco. He broke 14 tackles and forced 10 missed tackles on 57 catches (42.1% overall) as a rookie in 2019. In an injury-shortened 2020, he had a combined 12 failed tackles on 33 catches (36.4%).
This regular season, Samuel broke 11 tackles and forced eight missed tackles on his 77 catches (24.7%). Even more remarkably, in his first year of extensive action at running back, where the 49ers have been hit hard by injury, he had 11 broken tackles and seven missed tackles on 59 carries (30.5%). Bolstered by Kyle Shanahan’s innovating coaching staff and one of the NFL’s top offensive lines, Samuel earned first-team All-Pro honors at wide receiver.
Duvernay has been easier to pin down. In Texas’ screen-heavy offense, he could dust defenders or power through them on catch-and-runs. In the Ravens’ more vertical passing attack, he’s seen fewer schemed-up touches and struggled to elude defenders when given the chance. As a rookie, Duvernay broke one tackle over his 20 catches and forced one missed tackle on his four carries. This season, he broke two tackles and forced two missed tackles on 33 catches. On his seven carries, he broke one tackle. Overall, Duvernay’s forced a failed tackle on 10.9% of his career offensive touches in Baltimore.
Considering Duvernay’s other athletic gifts, that hasn’t been enough to curb his playing time on offense (51% participation in 2021). Nor has it limited his impact on the Ravens’ special teams, where he earned first-team All-Pro honors this month after leading the NFL in punt return average (13.8 yards). Even as a runner, Duvernay finished the season with 7.1 yards per carry.
“Whatever I can to help the team win, get some yards, first downs,” Duvernay said in October. “The coaches believe in me. So if they keep giving me the ball, I’m going to keep doing what I can with it.”
It was his lack of touches, however, that frustrated fans. They wanted regular trips to Roman’s vault. With running backs J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill sidelined by season-ending injuries, the Ravens struggled to stress run defenses horizontally, as they had so often in 2019 and 2020. Freeman showed quickness but not edge-bending speed. Latavius Murray was better suited for between-the-tackles running. Ty’Son Williams’ role shriveled after a promising start.
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Duvernay, maybe the Ravens’ fastest player, never lined up in the backfield for a carry, as Samuel did with San Francisco, as Moore did with the Arizona Cardinals, and as Laviska Shenault did with the Jacksonville Jaguars, among others. Duvernay split his time between the slot, the outside and in motion. His seven rushing attempts were limited to end-arounds and jet sweeps, according to SIS.
Circumstances sometimes dictated their effectiveness. Duvernay’s five jet motion carries — behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Chase Claypool (seven) for the most among NFL receivers — were, unsurprisingly, more productive when Jackson was on the field. From Week 6 to Week 12, Duvernay averaged 14.3 yards per carry on his first three jet motion handoffs. In Week 17 and Week 18, he ran for 4 yards and 2 yards, respectively — both snaps with the less dynamic Tyler Huntley at quarterback.
Despite a lack of size out wide, the Ravens engineered quick hitters for Duvernay in their passing game, too. He had five catches for 31 yards on screen plays, behind only Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (12 catches for 64 yards) in targets among Ravens receivers. Duvernay added four catches for 12 yards on jet motion touch passes; the New York Jets’ Elijah Moore led the NFL with seven such receptions for 15 yards.
With Dobbins, Edwards and Jackson again set for prominent roles in the Ravens’ 2022 ground game, it’s unclear how Duvernay’s role might change. In 2019 and 2020, the team had the NFL’s most and third-most efficient rushing offenses, respectively, according to Football Outsiders. This year, the Ravens fell to No. 11. If their success is predicated on getting their most talented runners into the most advantageous scenarios possible, Duvernay is unlikely to get a Samuel-esque amount of opportunities next season.
What Roman, Jackson and the Ravens need most from Duvernay is greater efficiency as a receiver — or at least more production. According to SIS, Samuel averaged 0.38 expected points added per target this year, among the highest rates in the NFL. Duvernay managed a solid 0.13 EPA per target, which accounts for play-by-play impact on games. He also finished with fewer total receiving yards (272) than Samuel had on just dig routes this season (352). In nine of his 16 games, Duvernay finished with fewer than 20 receiving yards.
His next season could be telling. It will be Duvernay’s second year working with wide receivers coach Tee Martin and pass game specialist Keith Williams. It will also be his third with Jackson, who this fall helped spur breakout seasons from tight end Mark Andrews and Brown, two talented targets who’d spent two-plus years learning their quarterback’s tendencies.
Duvernay won’t have to reach those heights in 2022 for the Ravens to value his contributions; he’s already one of the NFL’s top special teams weapons. But a step forward out wide could help unlock his potential elsewhere. At his December news conference, Roman said the Ravens had “tons of stuff” for Duvernay in their playbook. It was just a matter, he explained, of “whether we choose to unlock the vault.”