On Tuesday morning, Ravens wide receiver Miles Boykin was sprinting down the sideline with Marlon Humphrey, the All-Pro cornerback who is built like a safety and covers opponents like a blanket. It would not be an easy throw for quarterback Lamar Jackson, but it is one he has targeted this training camp: downfield, outside the numbers.
So Jackson looked to his left, wound up and imagined where Boykin’s back shoulder would be in a matter of seconds. As the ball sailed over the 6-foot Humphrey’s head, Boykin rose to meet it. He fell to the ground with a highlight-reel completion, a play that felt like a preview of what his 2020 could look like — and perhaps a reminder of what his 2019 was supposed to look like.
“Anytime the ball’s in the air, I’m 6-4, 225 [pounds],” Boykin said in a video conference call Friday. “That’s got to be mine. That’s why I’m out there. And personally-wise, I just feel like this is my time. This is time for me to be able to take over, and when the ball’s in the air, I’ve just to go get it. That what this team needs and that’s what I’m here for.”
Training camps tend to create preseason legends who fade into regular-season oblivion. Boykin, an NFL scouting combine standout and third-round pick, played often as a rookie, but he was in some ways a victim of his own July and August success. He’d looked the part, giving the Ravens’ talented secondary trouble while first-round pick Marquise “Hollywood” Brown recovered from offseason foot surgery. He had two big catches just minutes apart in the Ravens’ stadium practice early in camp last year.
Then the regular season started, and Boykin struggled. He had 13 catches for 198 yards and three touchdowns last season, and his catch rate (59.1%) was the lowest of any player on the Ravens with double-digit receptions. When Boykin was open downfield, Jackson seemed not to look his way. When Jackson did target him, their chemistry seemed imperfect.
Rookie years are fraught with growing pains. Boykin’s had more actual pain than he expected. He said Friday that at this point last year, “I was probably hurting, just leg-wise.” In May, he said he was working on strengthening his legs to endure a 16-game season; his first in the NFL had left him so beaten up that he was grateful for the rest he needed to recuperate from a handful of nagging injuries.
“I would never call myself a football player and talk about injuries,” Boykin said Friday. “If I’m playing out there, then I’m playing. It doesn’t matter what I’m feeling, what types of aches I’m feeling. I think probably just the biggest takeaway for me is that obviously, as a rookie, you don’t necessarily know how to take care of your body. ... I’m learning from the vets now, and I’ve done that over the offseason and even now into camp, and my body just feels completely different. I just feel healthier now.”
That was evident Tuesday, when, just hours after free-agent wide receiver Dez Bryant arrived in Baltimore ahead of a Thursday tryout for the Ravens, Boykin was the best receiver on the field. He showed his possession receiver potential with the catch over Humphrey. He showed his open-field acceleration with a quick burst past cornerback Jimmy Smith after a comeback route. He showed his toughness, shaking off a clean hit from safety Jordan Richards, who’d crashed into him over the middle.
On Friday, Boykin was diplomatic when asked about Bryant’s workout (“Honestly, it has nothing to do with me”). He was complimentary of the rookie receivers drafted to push him for snaps (“They’ve been great”). The hope in Owings Mills is that Boykin is still the right man for a starting job. He’s just got to go get it, again and again.
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“He has a mindset where he wants to dominate at the catch point — that’s something he’s taken very personally,” coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday. “Obviously, he’s worked really hard. You can see the physical aspect of it, but he has to stack those plays, stack those days and make those plays. So that’s what he’s trying to do. We appreciate it, and I think he’s off to a very good start.”