If the Ravens want to go shopping for a high-quality free-agent wide receiver this offseason, they can. They’re well off, salary cap-wise, and could always carve out more space. There’s good talent likely to be available, with Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay, Corey Davis and JuJu Smith-Schuster headlining the class. And there’s a need in Baltimore, as ever.
“There are a lot of things that we can do,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said at his season-ending news conference Monday. But, he warned, “it’s not all about getting the, quote, ‘No. 1 receiver’ that everybody likes to talk about.”
Perhaps that’s because the Ravens might already have their WR1 of the future under contract.
Over 16 games this past season, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown did not break records or shatter expectations. He finished with 58 catches for a team-high 769 yards, more than T.Y. Hilton had in 15 games (762) and fewer than Julio Jones had in nine (771). His yards per catch rose (12.7 to 13.3) and his catch rate fell (64.8% to 58%). He stayed healthy, missing just one practice all season. He tweeted his way into headlines, venting after a Week 11 loss to the Tennessee Titans. His ups and downs, in many ways, mirrored those of the Ravens in 2020.
But as the offense reignited over the season’s final two months, Brown flashed his first-round pedigree. With the return and resurgence of quarterback Lamar Jackson, Brown’s deep-threat ability resurfaced. With the evolution of coordinator Greg Roman’s passing attack, there was a preview of what a breakout 2021 might look like for the former Oklahoma star.
Brown’s stats after Week 12 were not gaudy: 33 catches on 49 targets for 449 yards and five touchdowns. But within the framework of the Ravens’ run-heavy offense — Jackson averaged just 21.1 pass attempts over their final seven games — it was maybe the most impressive stretch of Brown’s career.
According to a review of his offensive snaps with Jackson at quarterback, Brown averaged 2.33 yards per route run, a metric considered one of the more reliable indicators of wide receiver ability. In the NFL, that’s in elite company. Only 11 players finished the 2020 season with more than 2.33 yards per route run, according to PlayerProfiler. The league leaders should be no surprise: Davante Adams (2.91), A.J. Brown (2.76) and Julio Jones (2.7).
But Marquise Brown’s end-of-season production, at least on a per-play basis, was better than that of even big-play receivers like Tyreek Hill (2.26 yards per route run) and D.K. Metcalf (2.12). Robinson, the star of the free-agent class after a 1,250-yard season with the Chicago Bears, averaged 2.06 yards per route run.
Caveats apply, of course. The Ravens faced only one better-than-average pass defense after their rematch with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But despite an inconsistent offensive line and Jackson’s off-and-on accuracy, Brown still excelled. And in two playoff games, he had 215 total yards (19 rushing), helping Ravens quarterbacks post a stellar 110.4 passer rating when targeting him.
“I was really, really encouraged by Marquise over the last eight games of the season,” DeCosta said Monday. “He became a legitimate playmaker for us and a clutch guy — scored a bunch of touchdowns, made some big, big plays. In the playoff games, he was a force in both of those games. He showed some great skill, ability to run after the catch. He made some clutch catches.”
Brown’s end-of-season news conference last week was revealing. Almost two years removed from a Lisfranc (foot) injury that disrupted his rookie year, he said he felt “a lot more comfortable out there sticking and moving.” He also acknowledged that there was room to get “even more healthy.”
Even if Brown’s pre-injury burst fully returns, it will mean little if he and his quarterback are on different wavelengths. After opening the season with 10 catches on 12 targets for 143 yards, Brown started to have connectivity problems with Jackson, his close friend. From Week 3 to Week 11, he caught just 22 of 47 targets, averaging 36 receiving yards per game. He also dropped four passes, after just two drops total in 2019.
On downfield shots, especially, Brown and Jackson were out of sync. Twice in a Week 3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Brown won easily against man coverage on go routes. Jackson’s first attempt missed wide and long; his second was underthrown and nearly intercepted by an undercutting cornerback. Over the next two weeks, when targeting Brown deep — defined as passes of at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage — Jackson was just 2-for-7, with his biggest completion coming off a scramble.
Brown’s season bottomed out in November. He finished with more drops (one) than catches in a Week 11 loss to the Titans, and tweeted afterward, in a since-deleted post, “What’s the point of having souljas when you never use them.” He struggled for much of the next week, too, in the thrice-delayed loss to the Steelers.
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But when Jackson returned from the reserve/COVID-19 list, Brown’s game elevated. Starting in Week 13, they connected on eight of their next 13 deep shots, including two straight games with 44-yard completions that highlighted their game-breaking potential. The first was Jackson’s go-ahead touchdown to Brown late in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Browns. The next week, Jackson hit Brown in stride down the left sideline on a long ball against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Entering the postseason, the versatile Brown had helped everywhere, from out wide to reduced splits inside. He’d run slants, digs, corners, posts, deep outs and double moves with success. Against Tennessee, with Titans defenders giving him 7.7 yards of cushion per snap — up from 7.5 yards in the regular season, the second-highest average in the NFL — the Ravens unleashed him as a catch-and-run threat. Targeted on throws at every level, and even some laterals, Brown had seven catches for 109 yards and two carries for 19 yards.
“He continued to trust me to get me involved in different things,” Brown said of Roman. “So I just do my best out there to try to execute what they tell me to do, and hopefully, going forward, it continues.”
Brown will enter his third year in Baltimore familiar with the constraints of the offense. DeCosta and coach John Harbaugh have renewed their commitment to Roman and a run-first approach, meaning Ravens receivers will have relatively fewer opportunities. And opponents will likely continue to defend Jackson with zone coverages, limiting the range of passing concepts Roman can deploy with his young but athletic receiving corps.
Still, if Brown starts next season as he ended this past year, the franchise’s first 1,000-yard receiving season since Mike Wallace’s 2016 will be within reach. DeCosta’s plan to fortify the offensive line should benefit Brown, who lost a handful of big plays to untimely defensive pressure. Brown said he wants to develop more offensive chemistry, and a more normal offseason program will only help.
With Roman finding more ways to get Brown the ball in space — run-pass options, wide receiver screens, presnap motion — the Ravens could get top-receiver production at a fraction of the market price.
“I know the type of player I want to be,” Brown said last week. “I know what I want to do to help this team get to where it wants to be. So that’s enough motivation and confidence that I need.”