The NFL draft and Lamar Jackson’s long-term extension with the Ravens were still a few months away when general manager Eric DeCosta visited Jackson in South Florida in January. One of the topics of discussion was the upcoming class of wide receivers — a major position of need and perhaps an overture to the star quarterback about providing him with another playmaker.
“If you’re from South Florida, he’s going to know who you are,” DeCosta said of Jackson on Friday. “He gave me a full breakdown of every receiver in the draft from South Florida.”
Jackson had strong opinions on all of them, including Zay Flowers, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, one town over from where Jackson starred in Pompano Beach in high school. “He was very, very excited that we got him last night,” DeCosta said of the Ravens’ selection of Flowers with the 22nd overall pick on Thursday night. Indeed, Flowers was a star long before becoming the first Boston College wide receiver to be drafted since 1987.
When he was a senior in high school, Flowers’ NSU University School in Fort Lauderdale had just beaten Palm Beach County’s Glades Central, a school with a long history of producing Division I athletes, in a playoff game when a defensive back asked to pose with the wide receiver in his jersey after getting blown out. As a member of the school’s state championship basketball team that included future Utah Jazz center Vernon Carey Jr. and future Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes, Flowers was always assigned to the other team’s best guard.
“He was the stopper,” former NSU University School football coach Daniel Luque told The Baltimore Sun, adding that the Division I prospects on Flowers’ own team didn’t like playing against him in basketball practice. “‘That guy is tough,’ they’d say. His elbows are sharp, he was physical, he didn’t let you breathe.”
On the football field, though, is where Flowers really stood out, as much for his dazzling playmaking ability as his hard work. Off it, there was a level of maturity that belied his age, perhaps because Flowers had to grow up fast as the 11th of 14 siblings.
Flowers’ mother, Jackie Walden, died from a head injury when he was just 5 years old. Though she never saw his dream come to fruition, she was the one who started him playing football, which is why he was wearing a chain with her picture on it at the draft and again on Friday. In her absence, Flowers’ father Willie helped continue the journey — when he wasn’t waking up at 4 a.m. for his job driving a truck for a medical device company to provide for the family. Willie was up early on the weekends, too, doing laundry, cooking breakfast and taking the kids to their games.
Years later, tragedy struck again. In November 2017, when Flowers was a junior in high school, his 26-year-old brother, Martin, was shot and killed in Sanford, North Carolina.
“It was a very difficult day for him but he came to school the next day,” Luque said. “We had a game that night and he played well.”
Still, for all his exploits, Flowers was only a three-star recruit who was rated as the No. 83 wide receiver nationally by Rivals and the 179th best player in Florida by ESPN. Boston College was the first Power Five school to offer him a scholarship and he stayed committed to the Eagles even as NC State made a late push.
Once in Chestnut Hill, it didn’t take long for Flowers to break out. In his first game for the Eagles, he tallied 116 all-purpose yards on three carries for 25 yards and two catches for 91 yards against Virginia Tech, including a 16-yard gain on a jet sweep on his first touch of the game and a 33-yard touchdown catch. As a sophomore, he became just the second Boston College wide receiver to be named first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference.
Before the 2022 season, Flowers was offered a lucrative six-figure name, image and likeness deal to transfer to another school but opted to return to Boston College, where the 5-foot-9, 182-pound receiver racked up 1,077 yards on 78 catches and a school single-season record 12 receiving touchdowns.
“We thought he was explosive last year,” DeCosta said Friday. “We watched Zay at length two years ago and we were excited about him back then.”
That interest grew when the Ravens sent director of college scouting David Blackburn to the East West Shrine Bowl in February, where Flowers only had one day of practice. “He put on a show and that was it,” DeCosta said. “I asked [Blackburn] how he looked. ‘Fast. Best guy there.’”
That wasn’t always the case for Flowers, though. He began his high school days as a defensive back and, according to Luque, suffered a lot of soft tissue injuries as a freshman and sophomore because of his lack of size and strength.
“He really devoted himself after his sophomore season,” Luque said. “He was always explosive, but when you add that muscle it becomes next level.
“He’s outgoing but he also had a level of maturity in that he never did anything dumb. He took care of his body, getting treatment and getting rest and that separated him. Most kids wanna goof around. Zay wasn’t about that.”
That hard work was instilled early on, Flowers says, by watching his dad get up and go to work early in the morning every day.
There are many examples of it manifesting on the field, too, from his improved route running to his ability to play bigger than his size.
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Other moments stand out, too. In the 2022 season finale against Syracuse, Boston College blew an 11-point lead and eventually lost, 32-23. The Orange scored with 35 seconds left in the fourth quarter to make it 32-15. Even though the outcome was pretty much decided, Flowers, who finished with eight catches and 110 yards, wasn’t done, adding a touchdown grab with seven seconds left.
“He’s on a three-win team, and he’s out there blocking and fighting, and he has tears in his eyes at the end of the game,” Boston College coach Jeff Hafley said after the game. “While most guys in that situation probably would have opted out, he went harder.”
Never the biggest player on the field at any level, he proved himself again and again.
“I did have a chip on my shoulder,” Flowers said. “I still have it because I felt like I was an underdog. I’m going to continue to play like that.”
It’s also one of the reasons he has drawn comparisons to former Ravens star Steve Smith Sr., something Flowers says he’s comfortable with because he knows he’ll have to approach the game the same way to succeed. It’s a task that should be made easier with Flowers having watched Smith with his dad since he was a young boy.
All of it is why Flowers was the Ravens’ consensus top receiver going into this year’s draft. Now they have him, along with former All-Pro wideout Odell Beckham Jr. to bolster a suddenly deep receiving corps, a strong running game and offensive line, and one of the league’s best defenses. There is also Jackson, of course, and Flowers is just as excited about the opportunity for the two South Floridians to team up.
Said Flowers: “Being able to play with Lamar and other playmakers around me, it’s just going to make me play harder, work harder and try to make more plays to help the team.”