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Ravens film study: With arrival of Devin Duvernay and James Proche, are screen passes coming to Baltimore?

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

Two weeks before the NFL draft, the Ravens’ playbook was “pretty much built” and yet still evolving. Players could study it, coach John Harbaugh said, and coaches could update it. It was a living document.

Consider Greg Roman a constant caretaker. The Ravens’ innovative offensive coordinator has “the biggest playbook I’ve ever seen,” guard Marshal Yanda said last year. There’s something for everyone. That includes players like Texas’ Devin Duvernay and Southern Methodist’s James Proche, the newest additions to the Ravens’ receiving corps.

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As the rookies try to find their place in the offense this offseason, Harbaugh and Roman will try to find a place in the offense for them. Duvernay, a third-round pick, and Proche, a sixth-round selection, were sure-handed and productive receivers over their college careers. But one bread-and-butter play of theirs was often not on the menu in Baltimore last season.

According to Pro Football Focus, 42 of Duvernay’s 105 receptions (40%) last year came on screen passes, second most in the country. For Proche, it was 30 of 111 (27%), 11th most. They did not rack up 100-yard games by simply settling for screens, of course; Duvernay and Proche also had 12 and 11 catches, respectively, on deep targets, defined as passes of at least 20 air yards.

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But the contrast with the Ravens offense is striking. According to a review of every pass quarterback Lamar Jackson threw at or behind the line of scrimmage last season, he attempted just 17 screen passes overall in 15 games. Jackson completed 15, with 11 to wide receivers. A Football Outsiders analysis found that in 2018, the average qualifying NFL quarterback attempted 51.3 screen passes over that season.

The Longhorns and Mustangs’ reliance on wide receiver screens is understandable. They require short, simple throws that, depending on the play call, can take advantage of blitzes or stacked boxes. Duvernay ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds at the NFL scouting combine, and Proche has the quick feet to return punts. They’re the type of playmakers coaches want in space.

Now the Ravens must figure out whether what worked in college for them could work in the NFL.

“We try to use all of our guys as best we can,” Harbaugh said Saturday in a postdraft conference call with Baltimore reporters. “They both can make plays on the ball, and I think that’s the main thing. We’re pretty diverse on our offense, as you know, and we have different kinds of option plays and [run-pass-option] plays and drop-back passes and deep passes, play-action passes.”

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Roman’s offense evolved by the week last year, and in its season-long metamorphosis, screens were seemingly left behind. Over the Ravens’ first 10 games, they ran 14 screen plays. After that, a screen was called in just one other game: the Week 14 slog against the Buffalo Bills, when Jackson threw five.

The play designs were creative, but their execution and effectiveness varied. In Week 2, Jackson found wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, his top screen target, on three RPO screens, reading his keys before pulling the ball and firing quickly out wide to Brown. It was often a fair fight — a blocker and Brown against two defenders, or two blockers and Brown against three defenders — but the completions went for 9, 3 and 0 yards.

A week later, the Ravens used presnap “orbit” motion, in which a player runs across and behind the deepest back in the backfield, to get wide receiver Chris Moore behind blockers out wide for an 11-yard gain. Three weeks after that, Jackson faked a similar orbit screen to Brown to set up a screen headed the other way for running back Mark Ingram II, who gained 11 yards.

The offense’s best “pass” behind the line of scrimmage was neither a typical screen nor even a true throw. It came on Jackson’s touch pass to Brown, running “jet” motion — parallel to but behind the offensive line, and just in front of Jackson, lined up in the pistol formation — against the New England Patriots in Week 9. Brown took the ball, turned the corner and, thanks to blocks from fullback Patrick Ricard and wide receiver Willie Snead IV, raced upfield for 26 yards.

The challenge for the Ravens will be using Duvernay and Proche in ways that optimize the offense. As NFL passing offenses have exploded over the past decade, wide receiver screens have been among the least efficient routes for quarterbacks to target.

That was the case for Jackson last year. On the 11 wide receiver screens and jet motion passes he threw in 2019, he averaged 6 yards per attempt. On all other throws, he averaged 7.8 yards per attempt. What Jackson had gained in accuracy, he’d lost in efficiency.

The analytically inclined Ravens no doubt knew that; if the screens had been more productive, Jackson likely would have thrown more of them. And as Harbaugh and general manager Eric DeCosta explained Saturday, Duvernay and Proche were drafted for their all-around ability and fit in the offense.

They’ll join a passing attack with room to grow but a foundation for success already in place. While Jackson was spearheading the most prolific rushing team in NFL history last season, he was also quietly leading the NFL’s most efficient passing offense, according to Football Outsiders. And to that the Ravens have now added, as Harbaugh said, two "talented players we didn’t have a year ago.”

“We have one guy [Duvernay] that can really run like crazy and make all kinds of catches,” he said. “We have another guy [Proche] who can really run routes and has a feel for getting open and catch the ball like crazy. So Lamar is going to love both those guys.”

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