There were times last season when Marquise “Hollywood” Brown didn’t look quite right. The Ravens wide receiver would catch a pass, turn upfield and stumble, his normally graceful strides betrayed by the realities of a weird rookie year.
Fast enough to run past most cornerbacks, the first-round pick was in enough pain that it felt like he had one good foot. Weighing less than he had in college, he was asked to stay healthy against hulking NFL defenders. Every week, every practice, every play asked him to interrogate his priorities: self-preservation or self-actualization?
“Sometimes I would try to make a cut that my foot wasn’t able to make, and then I’d go down. Sometimes I just know that I’m not going to be able to make that move, so I’d go down,” Brown said in a conference call Wednesday, his first meeting with Baltimore reporters since he ended last season with a seven-catch, 126-yard breakout performance in a playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans.
“So it was more about: Get the yards that I can get, get down, get ready for the next play. It’s better for me to be in a game than to be out [of] the game.”
If Brown’s offseason has been as transformative as he hopes, it will be hard to keep him out of the game at all in 2020. Or the end zone, for that matter.
Over 14 games in a season that started just nine months after a debilitating Lisfranc (foot) injury, he finished second on the Ravens in receptions (46) and receiving yards (584), behind Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews. In team history, only Marlon Brown and Torrey Smith have caught as many Year 1 touchdowns as Brown did (seven).
The bad news is that he’s still not up to the top-end speed he reached as a star at Oklahoma. The good news is that he feels “100 times” better than he did last year. He feels like himself again.
“I’m not a guy that complains,” Brown said. “If I’m out there, I’m going to do all I can do to help my team. But, you know, it wasn’t the best circumstances. But I was just blessed to be in the NFL. I was just thankful that God allowed me to be where I was at. So there’s no complaints. I had a great year, to me, dealing with what I had to do. So just continue to push forward.”
Some of the Year 2 differences will be imperceptible. The pain in Brown’s surgically repaired left foot is gone, as are the orthopedic screw and scar tissue he had removed this offseason.
Other changes are more noticeable. Brown, who played at about 170 pounds at Oklahoma, weighed less than 160 for a period last season. He’s up to 180, he said Wednesday, and one of his offseason trainers, Daniel Harper, told The Baltimore Sun recently that “the results can be seen the moment he takes his shirt off.”
Wide receiver Willie Snead IV joked that the first thing Brown said when the Ravens regrouped for training camp last week was: “I’m trying to block somebody. I’m trying to set the tone in the run game.”
“And I could just tell by his build that he took that part seriously,” Snead said Wednesday. “He wants to look the part, he wants to put on weight, and he did that. He was committed to putting on a little muscle, and his speed is always going to be there. I know he’s healthy now. His foot’s feeling a lot better. He’s moving a lot better. I think now, it’s just time to get on the field. ...
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“So from just looking at him, man, he looks like a totally different kid from [what] I saw last year. Super excited to see what he can do.”
If Brown is everything the Ravens envisioned him being when they took him No. 25 overall last year, the first wide receiver off the board in a draft class costarring Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, Mecole Hardman and D.K. Metcalf, the possibilities will be endless.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s experimentation last year was telling. Brown was a frequent deep-ball target for quarterback Lamar Jackson on sideline throws, but he also lined up in the slot on over 22% of his snaps. His presnap motion could be a decoy — the Arizona Cardinals bit on one Week 2 fake, leading to an easy Jackson-to-Andrews touchdown — and a weapon — he took one jet sweep touch pass 26 yards against the New England Patriots in Week 9. Even on a team that didn’t run a lot of screen passes, he was a top option.
Jackson carved up pass defenses last season over the middle of the field. This year, he wants to improve his outside accuracy and deep-passing ability. The 5-foot-9 Brown should help at every level. Play him too close, the Ravens hope, and he’ll run by you; show too much room, and Jackson will take easy-money short and intermediate routes.
But Brown’s best ability will have to be his availability. He said he’s learned from cousin Antonio Brown, the former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and potential Ravens free-agent target, the importance of preparing to withstand a 16-game season. That’s why he went down every so often last season. That’s why he bulked up this offseason.
“Feeling good and feeling strong,” Marquise Brown said. “So ready to get after it.”
Note: The Ravens announced Wednesday that undrafted rookie Nigel Warrior, a safety from Tennessee, has been added to their active roster. On July 26, he was one of the NFL’s first players placed on the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list. The new designation does not mean a player has tested positive for the coronavirus; players who have been quarantined after exposure to an infected person are also eligible for the list.