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Baltimore Ravens

‘It’s unacceptable’: Slumping Ravens WR Miles Boykin isn’t looking for excuses

The last route that Miles Boykin ran as a Raven — the last one that counted, anyway — was one he shouldn’t have run. He knows that now.

In Week 6, late in the third quarter of a blowout of the Philadelphia Eagles that was not to be, Boykin lined up wide, the only receiver to quarterback Lamar Jackson’s left. It was third-and-12. At the snap, Boykin pumped his arms and glided forward, his long strides cutting into cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman’s cushion.

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Jackson’s first pass of the game had been to Boykin, running a 12-yard speed out down the left sideline. A completion, a first down, a promising start. Jackson’s next pass to Boykin took almost another three quarters to arrive, and the second-year wide receiver never saw it coming. Boykin was running deep; Jackson threw it like he was expecting him to stop or cut again. An incompletion, a punt, another missed connection.

“That’s not on the quarterback,” Boykin said in an interview Thursday. “That’s for me to be on that page. And we talked about that, obviously, and that’s on me. That’s on me, the receiver. I’ve got to be better and more decisive and make those decisions quicker and know what I’m doing when I’m out there.”

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As the Ravens stormed their way to the NFL’s best record last season, Boykin played his part on a record-breaking offense. He blocked and hustled and fought through rookie-year growing pains. But with the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers arriving Sunday in Baltimore, their defense once again fierce and their receiving corps once again restocked, this Ravens offense has had to reckon with questions it mostly avoided last year.

Chief among them: What is going on with Miles Boykin? The 2019 third-round draft pick, a training camp standout for the second straight season, has just 11 catches on 19 targets for 122 yards. Of his four completions in his past four games, his longest (15 yards) came via punter Sam Koch. Through seven weeks, Boykin is on pace to easily eclipse his first-year totals (198 receiving yards), but he ranks among the NFL’s least productive route runners.

In each of the Ravens' past two games, Boykin has provided a convenient metaphor for the team’s struggling passing attack — and perhaps a clue about his role in the weeks to come. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 5, Boykin was targeted twice: once on a crossing pattern that never had a chance, and once on a vertical route that Boykin, confusingly, turned into a run block.

One week later, Boykin had the early catch in Philadelphia. And then came the third-down ball in the dirt. A day after the Ravens' third straight win, coach John Harbaugh called the misfires a “communication issue” and said it was Boykin’s responsibility to “get it right.” Wide receivers coach David Culley, likewise, blamed presnap miscommunication and said Boykin “understands what has to happen.”

Asked about the plays, Boykin said he hadn’t done what he’d needed to. He also said they weren’t due to miscommunication. “It was me messing up a play.”

The consequences soon became apparent. While Harbaugh defended Boykin after the narrow Week 6 victory — “He had a lot of good plays, too,” he said, after acknowledging the Notre Dame product’s not-so-good plays — the Ravens' fourth-quarter game plan mostly excluded him. Their offense ran 18 plays over its final four drives against the Eagles. Boykin didn’t take the field for any. (A third-down play in which he appeared was called back because of a penalty.)

More involved was rookie wide receiver Devin Duvernay, who finished with three catches and 26 offensive snaps, both career highs. Boykin, meanwhile, saw 33 snaps, his lowest share (45%) this season. It was his third straight game with less than 60% participation; he’d started the season with three straight above 65%.

As a receiver in a run-first offense, Boykin understands he cannot afford to be wasteful. “We’re not going to get 10 targets a game like some other teams do,” he said. He also said those two plays were not representative of his receiving ability.

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“If you watch all the film, there’s not many plays that I bust on,” he said. “And those were two plays I busted on. It was just unfortunate that the ball was coming my way on those two plays. But regardless, it doesn’t matter if we run 100 plays or 1,000 plays. Messing up two, it’s unacceptable, especially in the NFL.”

A year after leading the league in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, the Ravens' passing attack now has little margin for error.

Jackson, the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player, has completed less than 60% of his passes in three of the past four games. The Ravens rank No. 31 in passing offense (177.8 yards per game), ahead of only the New York Jets. Former Dallas Cowboys star wide receiver Dez Bryant, who hasn’t played since 2017, joined the practice squad this week and immediately became an avatar of hope.

Only two months ago, Boykin was playing as if eager to prove the Ravens didn’t need reinforcements. After an offseason of what he called mostly uninterrupted training, he looked more polished in his second training camp. He wasn’t the offense’s most dangerous receiver (that was Marquise “Hollywood” Brown), nor was he Jackson’s favorite big-body target (that was tight end Mark Andrews). But he was catching back-shoulder fades over All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey, and that had to count for something.

Now, though, he is set for a reunion with a former Fighting Irish teammate, rookie Chase Claypool, whose production has made Boykin’s all the more stark.

Both wide receivers were relatively late bloomers, not breaking out until their fourth year at Notre Dame. Both were NFL scouting combine standouts; the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Boykin and 6-4, 229-pound Claypool both ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds. Both were Day 2 draft picks, with the Ravens taking Boykin No. 93 overall and the Steelers grabbing Claypool surprisingly high at No. 49.

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But the similarities have mostly ended there. Claypool has more receiving yards (333) in six games than Boykin does in his career (320). While Steelers coaches have found ways to weaponize Claypool’s athleticism, Boykin has shown only glimpses of his natural ability.

“All of the athleticism that [Claypool] showed at the combine, he does possess it,” said former NFL and Arena Football League cornerback Eric Crocker, an NFL and draft analyst for Crocker Report. “I didn’t see him win with just super-good route running, but every clip I put on from Notre Dame, he was catching vertical passes. So he could run down the sideline. I thought he was really good at positioning his body to catch go routes. And he has that long speed.”

Crocker was less sold on Boykin. "Even though he had really good athletic test scores, when I watched him, I didn’t see that same athleticism or that same initial quickness and explosiveness off the line of scrimmage. So I look at it like, ‘OK, at the next level, how are guys going to really use him?’ "

Claypool has taken end-arounds, caught jump balls and won over the middle. Boykin, primarily an outside receiver, has been more predictable, and perhaps less fortunate. When he’s won on vertical routes, Jackson has sometimes missed him or just not seen him, a problem that surfaced at times last season, too.

Boykin said he doesn’t worry about his numbers. He’s happy to block and happier to talk about the team’s big goals. “I think I play this game the right way,” he said. “I go about my business the right way.”

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But the more Boykin struggles, the more his fit becomes a question. Crocker said Boykin would be better suited in an offense like Pittsburgh’s; quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has partnered with three separate Pro Bowl wide receivers since 2011. As a 49ers fan, Crocker also said he’s skeptical about former San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s ability to create advantageous matchups for Jackson in the Ravens' passing game.

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Brentley Weissman, a former NFL scout and current contributor for The Draft Network, said every team looks for receiving prospects who can “transcend any scheme.” But they’re hard to find. Boykin was the 13th receiver drafted in 2019; Claypool was the 11th taken this year.

“Receivers are so scheme-dependent, where it’s kind of tough just to peg them and hope that they succeed,” Weissman said. “You really have to cater your offense around these guys, and that’s why I think Pittsburgh does such a good job. They really evaluate these receivers through a lens of how they can fit and complement their offense.”

Weissman called for patience, saying it was far too early to give up on someone with Boykin’s potential. “The last thing you want to do is let him get out your building and for him to go to the Seahawks, and he’s a great No. 3 with DK [Metcalf] and Tyler Lockett.”

Over a 10-minute phone call, Boykin expressed no doubt about his future in Baltimore or worry about the Ravens' plans for him. All he can do, he said, is play to the best of his ability and hope it leads to winning football.

It helps to have a short memory, even when the fans in his Twitter mentions don’t. But even Boykin acknowledged the difficulty of moving on to the next play, to the next game, when there’s something to fix.

“I’m harder on myself than anybody else can be, so when I make a mistake, I understand,” he said. “I’m not going to make excuses about it. I’m not going to jump around. I understand that I made a mistake and I’ve got to get it corrected.”


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