If expectations around the Ravens’ three new wide receivers are dangerously high, they seem to match what Michael Crabtree has been telling John Brown and Willie Snead IV.
“Crab tells me every day, ‘We’re going to be doing something serious this year,’ ” Snead said. “And I believe it, too.”
While that statement is nowhere close to Cleveland wide receiver Josh Gordon’s contention in June that the Browns had the best receiving corps in the league, it symbolizes the high hopes that the Ravens’ three new wide receivers have for the season. Those hopes are mirrored by teammates, coaches and fans, who envision the trio (and a healthy starting quarterback in Joe Flacco) reviving what was one of the most underwhelming passing attacks in the NFL a year ago.
Out went Mike Wallace (to the Philadelphia Eagles), Jeremy Maclin (to free agency) and Michael Campanaro (to the Tennessee Titans) and in came Crabtree (from the Oakland Raiders), Brown (from the Arizona Cardinals) and Snead (from the New Orleans Saints). It is too early to tell whether Crabtree, Brown and Snead represent an upgrade, but former Ravens wide receiver Qadry Ismail said last year’s wide receiving corps was struck by a fundamental flaw.
“It just wasn’t consistent enough, and the lack of consistency really hurt this team,” said Ismail, who will assist in WJZ-TV’s coverage of the Ravens this season. “I’m looking for this group to be that consistent group this year. If they can be consistent this year, that’s where I think they can be dangerous as far as the offense and the passing attack as far as what [offensive coordinator] Marty Mornhinweg wants to do with the offense. Clearly, Joe is healthy, and that’s a bonus, but I’ve seen a healthy Joe Flacco throw some dimes to his receivers and they either delivered or they didn’t. … The 2010, 2011 and 2012 teams made some plays to get them to the playoffs, and that’s what Joe needs from his receiving corps.”
All three receivers joined the organization with some baggage. Brown, who signed with the Ravens as an unrestricted free agent, is trying to overcome a series of health problems, including a cyst on his spine and sickle-cell anemia, and recapture the explosiveness that contributed to him accumulating 1,003 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2015.
A three-game suspension for an alcohol-related incident to begin the year and a hamstring injury that sidelined him for two more games sent Snead — who joined the Ravens on April 20 — to his worst season as a pro in 2017, setting career lows in receptions (eight), yards (92) and touchdowns (zero). Crabtree, who signed March 16, has finished with less than 700 yards in three of his past five seasons.
Joining the No. 29 passing offense in the league last season might not seem like the optimal destination for a rejuvenation, but Brown said last year’s dismal showing did not dissuade him from signing on the dotted line March 15, one day after free agency officially opened.
“We know what the situation was last year with the receivers,” he said. “So we set a high bar for ourselves. … Everybody is just feeling good about the situation. That’s what we plan on doing — making plays and changing the offense.”
Brown and Snead have known each other since entering the 2014 NFL draft and training together in the offseason in Miami. Although the duo and Crabtree met for the first time this offseason, the trio has bonded quickly, with Crabtree inviting Brown to his camp in Texas and Snead confiding that Crabtree might have the best sense of humor among the group.
“We’re all brand new in this system, and we all have a good feel for each other,” Snead said. “We’re always talking. We’re always hanging around each other. So that relationship is being built right now. I feel like once the season starts, and the season gets going, I think that bond is just going to be embraced more and more. We all feel really good right now, and we’re all playing at a high level. I think we’re just working on the little details and the little things in this offense that make it click.”
Entering his 10th season as a pro, Crabtree is easily the most experienced wide receiver in their meeting room. Brown and Snead have each played five seasons in the league, and they have already begun sharing advice with their younger teammates.
Rookie wideout Janarion Grant said the threesome has hammered home the emphasis on meeting a pass in the air rather than waiting for the ball to come to them.
“We’ve got to attack that,” he said. “We’re receivers, so we’ve got to catch the ball. Anytime that ball is up in the air, we’ve got to go up there and catch it.”
Breshad Perriman said he has grown to appreciate their support as he attempts to meet the expectations associated with being the organization’s first-round draft pick in 2015.
“They told me to just go out there and play fast,” he said. “They told me to go out there and don’t think at all. Of course, you’ve got to think a little bit, but don’t over-think. Just go out there and play fast and do what you do best.”
Flacco, who had a career-low yards per pass attempt (5.7 yards) last season after missing the entire preseason because of a back injury, seemed to acknowledge the difficulty of bringing in new faces.
“Anytime you bring new guys in, it can be an issue,” he said. “But I think the guys that have already been in there are young guys. I think they’ve really welcomed them in, and really, it’s made them better. I think everybody has elevated their game. I think that’s a huge credit to them checking their ego at the door and allowing those three to come in and learn from them. The same thing from the other guys. It’s a credit to them how easily they’ve been able to come in and adapt to a new situation.”
Flacco seems to be enjoying the new weapons at his disposal. Brown has emerged as his favorite target on long-distance throws, Crabtree has been a midrange monster and Snead has attacked the underbelly of defenses concerned with Brown and Crabtree’s long runs.
Flacco’s connection with the threesome has not gone unnoticed.
“They make more plays,” free safety Eric Weddle said. “Over the middle … those contested balls where usually we’re coming down with them [or] breaking them up, they’re coming down with them. Tough catches, where you go back and watch film and you say, ‘Man, that’s going to be a catch in the game. We couldn’t have done any more as a defense.’ It’s nice for us, and it’s nice to see Joe back there confident and hit that back foot and just fire it in there, not worried about it, not worried about the protection, not worried about the receiver. Whoever he’s throwing to, just fire it in there, and he’s confident those guys are going to make it. It’s exciting to watch how far they’ve come.”
Crabtree, Brown and Snead have stressed that they will be only as successful as the entire offense is. Brown downplayed any notion that the trio will resurrect Flacco’s career.
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“Joe struggled with a few injuries, but it doesn’t matter who’s in the game,” Brown said. “I feel like he can make anybody look good, and he’s looking real good, and he’s healthy.