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Ravens draft preview: For offense in search of a star receiver, Rashod Bateman could be quite the catch

If Ravens front-office officials need a break from studying wide receiver film ahead of this week’s NFL draft, perhaps they should consider another film altogether: “Edge of Tomorrow.” Somewhere in the 2014 blockbuster they might see faint reflections of their franchise.

Year after fruitless year, the Ravens have looked for their first great wide receiver. Sometimes it’s in free agency, sometimes in the draft, sometimes on their roster. They’ve found largely frustration and flops, a proud organization resigned to restarting, reloading and staring down the monster it just cannot best. General manager Eric DeCosta might not know Tom Cruise, but he would no doubt relate to his Major William Cage, stuck in a brutal time loop until somehow he finds a way out.

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The Ravens have taken their shots, to be sure. Over the past three drafts, DeCosta and former general manager Ozzie Newsome have selected six wide receivers, including three in the first three rounds. But the Ravens have been left unfulfilled, stuck with more questions than answers. At a predraft news conference last week, DeCosta bristled at the notion that the Ravens, who have never drafted a Pro Bowl wide receiver, might be lacking at the position.

“It’s insulting to these guys when they hear that we don’t have any receivers,” he said. “It’s quite insulting. I’m insulted by it, too, to be honest. I think we have some guys that want to show everybody what they can do.”

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Of course, that doesn’t mean he won’t draft another receiver or two this week.

What do the Ravens need at wide receiver?

The Ravens need more than what they got last year, when their group finished with the fewest catches and receiving yards of any in the NFL. With a run-first offense, passing-game fireworks tend to be muted, but consistency and execution in 2020 were nonetheless elusive. According to Pro Football Focus, the team’s highest-rated wide receiver was Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, who ranked No. 43 overall in the NFL.

In the Ravens’ offensive schemes, receivers must be versatile, as they’re not tied to any one position on the field. Miles Boykin, a big-bodied, mostly linear receiver, aligned in the slot over 10% of the time in 2020, according to Player Profiler. Rookie Devin Duvernay, meanwhile, who played all but seven snaps in the slot in 2019 at Texas, was there on just 41.3% of his snaps last year.

Given the number of vertical routes in coordinator Greg Roman’s playbook, deep speed is an important trait, but so is blocking ability. Slot receivers, especially, are often bunched close to the line of scrimmage, where they joust with linebackers and safeties flowing to the ball-carrier.

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It also helps to be savvy against zone coverage. According to Sports Info Solutions, Jackson had almost three times as many drop-backs against zone looks as he did man-coverage looks last season. Cover 3 and Cover 4 schemes, with three and four deep-lying defensive backs, respectively, were the most popular play calls.

With several receivers linked to the Ravens late in the first round, here’s whom they could target in the draft.

Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman

Stats: 36 catches on 56 targets for 472 yards and two touchdowns in five games; 60 catches on 95 targets for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns in 13 games in 2019

Why he’d fit: The Ravens need a receiver who can get open — ideally, an outside receiver. That’s Bateman. He was good in the slot at Minnesota but great out wide. According to Pro Football Focus, Bateman had a top-10 rate of separation over the past two seasons, and ranked first among Power Five conference receivers in yards per route run (3.74) when lined up on the outside.

Bateman’s production dipped last season, when he played primarily in the slot. A bout with COVID-19 last summer also left him about 10 pounds below his 2019 weight. But he showed his No. 1 wide receiver bona fides in a dominant true-sophomore season. According to SIS, in 2019, Bateman ranked first in the Football Bowl Subdivision in first-down rate (88.3%) and fifth in yards per target (12.4).

Bateman wins with savvy route running, impressive body control and respectable deep speed. His big hands (69th percentile among receivers) and long arms (82nd percentile) show up on his highlight reel of one-handed grabs and jump-ball catches. The Ravens lacked an after-the-catch threat last season, and Bateman has been tough to bring down, breaking 36 tackles on 147 career receptions at Minnesota, according to PFF.

Why he might not: Bateman surprised at his Pro Day, posting a 4.39-second 40-yard dash — faster than he looks on film — and weighing in at 6 feet, 190 pounds — shorter and thinner than expected.

Dropped passes were a problem in college and could be a red flag in Baltimore. Bateman had five in 2019 and three in 2020, according to SIS, though his inconsistency seems fixable. As a blocker, he’s acknowledged he has room for improvement.

Projection: Round 1

Mississippi’s Elijah Moore

Stats: 86 catches on 101 targets for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns in eight games; 67 catches on 115 targets for 850 yards and six touchdowns in 12 games in 2019

Why he’d fit: Moore would immediately challenge for repetitions as the Ravens’ starting slot receiver, and he wouldn’t look out of place as the receiver opposite Brown in reduced-split formations, either. In eight games against Southeastern Conference defenses last season — some very good, some very bad — he averaged nearly 150 receiving yards per outing.

While undersized at 5-9 and 178 pounds, Moore has the speed (4.35-second 40) and quickness (96th percentile in the 20-yard shuttle) to separate in man coverage. In zone, according to SIS, he’s just as comfortable: He caught 80% of his targets, had a first-down rate of 73.9% and earned a 112.9 passer rating when targeted last season.

Moore’s stellar ball skills bely his smaller frame, with an impressive 73% contested-catch rate, according to PFF, and the lowest drop rate among SEC wide receivers in 2020. While over half of his catches came on short passes (9 yards of depth or fewer), he was hyperefficient as a midrange target and had four touchdowns on 20-plus-yard targets.

Why he might not: Moore should be off the board by the end of the first round, and he’s less needed in Baltimore than he might be elsewhere. In Brown and tight end Mark Andrews, the Ravens already have two capable part-time slot receivers, and there’s hope for Year 2 gains by Duvernay and James Proche II.

While Sammy Watkins’ signing bolstered the Ravens’ depth out wide, he’s injury-prone and on a short-term deal. Moore doesn’t project as an outside threat; he lined up there on 17% of his snaps last season and had just 159 receiving yards, much of which came after the catch. With his short arms and inexperience against press coverage, it’s unclear whether he’d fare any better there at the next level.

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Projection: Round 1

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LSU’s Terrace Marshall Jr.

Stats: 48 catches on 67 targets for 731 yards and 10 touchdowns in seven games; 46 catches on 67 for 671 yards and 13 touchdowns in 12 games in 2019

Why he’d fit: The 6-2, 205-pound Marshall lined up in the slot on 73% of his snaps last season, and his resulting route heat map overlaps almost perfectly with where Jackson’s proved most consistent: inside the numbers, 5 to 15 yards downfield. According to SIS, Marshall had a 137.1 passer rating when targeted over the middle, higher than Florida’s Kadarius Toney and Ole Miss’ Moore.

And that “big slot” position might not even be where Marshall’s best suited. He has big-time potential out wide, where his passer rating in both 2019 and 2020 was even higher. Marshall’s easy speed (4.38-second 40), big frame and impressive catch radius compare favorably with those of former Tigers teammate Justin Jefferson, who transitioned from his slot-heavy role at LSU to an outside spot with the Minnesota Vikings seamlessly.

Even if Marshall struggles adjusting to the NFL, he’d at least boost the Ravens’ middling red-zone offense. He had 15 touchdown catches inside the 20 over the past two seasons, according to PFF, third most nationally. Overall, Marshall ranked No. 1 in contested-catch rate (82%) last season.

Why he might not: The NFL Network reported last week that Marshall’s recent medical evaluations had raised some concerns around the league. He missed most of his senior season in high school with a broken left fibula (lower leg), which required surgery. He later missed time as a sophomore in college because of a fractured left foot, which also required surgery.

Marshall’s in-game focus has also come under scrutiny; he had seven drops last season and was sometimes lackadaisical in his route running and blocking. At his Pro Day, he told reporters, “I just want to go to an offense that throws the ball.” He’d get far fewer chances in Baltimore than he did at LSU.

Projection: Round 1-2

Florida’s Kadarius Toney

Stats: 70 catches on 84 targets for 977 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 games; 10 catches on 12 targets for 194 yards and one touchdown in seven games in 2019

Why he’d fit: The Ravens have made speed a priority in the draft in recent years, especially at skill positions. The 6-0, 193-pound Toney, like his fellow top prospects, fits the bill. He plays with the burst and long speed of a track star, having run the 100 meters in 11.5 seconds in high school and the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds at his Pro Day.

But Toney’s elastic agility and stop-start ability are what set him apart. His make-you-miss skill set would give the Ravens offense a dimension it’s lacked of late. According to Pro Football Focus, he broke 32 tackles on 80 catches over the past two seasons. According to SIS, more than half of Toney’s receiving yards in 2020 came after the catch (508). In Baltimore last season, Brown had a team-high 270 yards after the catch, 70th overall in the NFL. No other Ravens receiver had more than 200.

For a one-year wonder, Toney showed reliable hands — just three career drops on 123 catchable passes, according to PFF — and gadget play potential throughout his Florida career. He averaged 145 rushing yards per season, including a career-high 240 yards in 2018 (11.4 yards per carry). He’s 3-for-6 as a passer with a touchdown. And he returned punts and kickoffs last season, bringing back a punt for a 50-yard score.

Why he might not: Toney never had more than 260 receiving yards in a season until 2020, partly because of his health. His junior season was derailed by a left shoulder injury, and he suffered shoulder and shin injuries as a freshman. Toney also made a couple of off-field headlines in Gainesville, including a 2018 incident in which police discovered a loaded AR-15 in the back seat of his car.

Positionally, Toney has the size and athleticism to play out wide, but his route tree is still developing. He played 82% of his snaps last season in the slot and just 13% out wide, according to PFF, where he was largely ineffective. Star tight end Kyle Pitts, in fact, more than tripled Toney’s receiving yardage in outside alignments, according to SIS.

Projection: Round 1-2

Honorable mention

Purdue’s Rondale Moore (Round 2): The 5-7, 181-pound Moore showed Tyreek Hill-esque potential as a true freshman, with 114 catches for 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns. But he averaged just 328.5 receiving yards over the next two seasons, limited by injuries and a coronavirus-related opt-out. If Moore can stay healthy and round out his game in the slot, he has star potential.

North Carolina’s Dyami Brown (Round 2): As the Tar Heels’ go-to vertical threat, the 6-1, 189-pound Brown averaged at least 20 yards per catch and had over 1,000 receiving yards in two straight seasons. His acceleration and releases are impressive; his route tree as an outside receiver and play strength are not.

Clemson’s Amari Rodgers (Round 2-3): The son of Ravens wide receivers coach Tee Martin, Rodgers feasted on quick hitters in the slot last season, leading the Atlantic Coast Conference in total receptions (77 for 1,020 yards and seven touchdowns). At 5-9, 212 pounds, he moves like a running back, but not every offense will be right for his skill set.

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