Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco filled the sky with spirals Thursday as he tested out a new receiver corps led by Michael Crabtree and John Brown.
Viewed through an optimistic lens, the Ravens hinted at a rosier offensive future Thursday during their offseason team workout.
Spiral after spiral filled the sky in Owings Mills as quarterback Joe Flacco led new receivers John Brown, Willie Snead IV and Michael Crabtree down the field and into the corners of the end zone.
“Someone kind of joked in my ear that we completed more deep balls in practice today than we did the whole offseason last year,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I think it’s got to be a big part of what we do.”
It was not a perfect showcase for an offense seeking to transcend a woeful 2017, when the Ravens ranked 29th in the NFL in passing yards and 23rd in passing touchdowns.
Receivers dropped a few passes, and there were no hits to disrupt the symmetry of the late-spring display. But after a few weeks of light work, the Ravens believe they’re on track to throw the ball more effectively in 2018.
Just don’t expect this message to resound from the team’s new pass catchers. At a position known for big personalities, projected starters Brown and Crabtree spoke in reserved tones and kept their messages clipped.
“It’s a process,” Crabtree said after Thursday’s workout when asked how the group is coming together. “Every day, we try to get better. We try to connect.”
With that bit of typical NFL-speak, he stopped.
“It’s great, you know, just to have a good group come in and know the game, understand the game,” Brown said, seemingly trying to win the understatement battle. “You know, we learn from each other.”
Outside the bounds of formal interviews, however, these new teammates have begun to reveal their affections for one another.
Though he’s as fresh to Baltimore as any of the receivers, the 30-year-old Crabtree has naturally taken on a lead role. He’s the most accomplished player in the bunch, and his fluidity in every aspect of football stands out, even during a mundane workout.
“He’s been a good leader. Crab has done a great job,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a really hard worker. He’s got a great feel for the game. A lot of the tricks of the trade, he understands, and he’s willing to share with those guys. So he’s been great for our locker room, for our meeting room.”
Crabtree is comfortable acting as an additional coach during workouts, dispensing advice to his fellow receivers, none of whom have played more than four NFL seasons.
“I don’t have a choice,” Crabtree said of leading the group. “But at the same time, I’m out there competing like I’m 21. I’m having fun with it.”
He quickly lived up to his pledge, allowing the team’s most productive receiver, Mike Wallace, to depart in free agency and cutting the other starting wideout, Jeremy Maclin, and the team’s top pass catcher out of the backfield, Danny Woodhead.
In their place, Newsome signed Crabtree, Brown and slot specialist Snead. The Ravens also made an offer to former Dallas Cowboys star Dez Bryant, who spurned their interest.
They opted against using a high draft pick on one of the top wide receivers in the 2018 class but added a pair of rookies, Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley, in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively. They also drafted two pass-catching tight ends, Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews.
So we know Flacco will throw to a radically different group of targets. But will they be better?
Each new acquisition comes with questions, from Brown’s health woes to Crabtree’s diminished production to the drunken-driving suspension and hamstring injury that marred Snead’s 2017 season.
Brown has to manage a sickle-cell trait that can cause muscle degeneration for those who perform strenuous exercise. But he has said a cyst on his spine, which he had drained after the 2016 season, was more responsible for the leg soreness that bothered him each of the past two seasons in Arizona.
The Ravens are gambling he can regain the explosiveness from his career-best 2015 season.
Crabtree is the more proven entity, having caught at least eight touchdown passes in four of his past five full seasons. But he averaged just 10.7 yards a catch for the Oakland Raiders in 2017 and tied for ninth in the league in dropped passes. The Raiders released him in March.
Brown said the receivers are actually bound by the difficulties they’ve endured.
“It all feels great, just to get a new start,” he said. “Most of the new receivers’ stories, we’ve all had our ups and downs. It just feels good to have a new start and keep things rolling.”
Amid all the fresh faces, 2015 No. 1 pick Breshad Perriman has become something of a forgotten man, written off by many Ravens fans as a bust after his dismal 2017. But he also made several deep catches Thursday, flashing the speed that tantalized so many evaluators in the first place.
“He’s playing very fast and not just that, he’s catching the ball really well,” Harbaugh said. “He looks much smoother. He’s getting in and out of routes quicker. He’s taking a step in the right direction, and I know he’s determined to carry that right through training camp.”
Of course, we’ve heard similar words during previous offseasons — talk of natural chemistry between the receivers and glowing prognostications for the newest among them.
Crabtree said none of it will carry much meaning until the second Sunday in September