Tim White talked to scouts from a number of NFL organizations. He pored over teams’ depth charts at both wide receiver and returner. He considered what cities he wanted to live in during the season.
Not long after Arizona State’s pro day in mid-March, White’s mind was essentially made up on where he wanted to begin his NFL career if given the choice. He made it official the only way he could a month before the draft. He turned on his Madden NFL video game, created himself as a player and placed himself on the Baltimore Ravens.
“As soon as the Ravens came in, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m feeling this,’” White said this week. “This is where I wanted to be.”
Two weeks into training camp, the play of White and fellow undrafted free agent receiver Quincy Adeboyejo has provided the Ravens with a jolt of excitement at a time when good news has been in short supply for the team. White, also a track and field standout at Arizona State, has used his speed and athleticism to find holes in the Ravens defense. Adeboyejo, who played at Mississippi, has caused problems for the team’s top cornerbacks with his combination of size and speed.
When the Ravens open the preseason Thursday night against the Washington Redskins at M&T Bank Stadium, the next challenge for the rookie receivers will be carrying over their form to game situations where the brighter lights and higher stakes have stifled several of the team’s young receivers in the past.
The Ravens will soon find out whether White and Adeboyejo will continue to get open and make plays when they are in full uniform and pads rather than shorts, when they are absorbing full contact from the opposition rather than facing teammates and when they are playing in front of thousands of people at an NFL stadium rather than a back field at the Under Armour Performance Center.
“You have to put them into the game and see who can turn it on and who can’t: Who is a 1 Winning Drive All-Star and who is a Russell Street All-Star?” former Ravens receiver and current NFL Network analyst Steve Smith Sr. said Monday, invoking the locations of the team’s training facility and its downtown stadium. “The game that counts is played on Russell Street.”
Every summer, each NFL team has players that flash regularly in practice, but struggle to stand out once the preseason begins. That’s why evaluators and coaches often shrug when asked about a newcomer standing out in practice, and suggest reserving judgment until the action goes live.
Die-hard Ravens fans might remember wide receiver Justin Harper, a seventh-round draft pick out of Virginia Tech in 2008, the same draft that produced Joe Flacco and Ray Rice. Harper looked unstoppable at times in training camp practices, but it never carried over to games. He didn’t catch a pass in his brief NFL career.
The Ravens are cautiously optimistic that Adeboyejo (pronounced add-ah-BOY-joe) and White will be different. Both of them have had their best practices under the lights and in front of crowds at M&T Bank Stadium and Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Wide receivers coach Bobby Engram has asked more and more from the two rookies and they’ve responded. White has been used recently as a slot receiver with the first-team offense. Adeboyejo has been matched up with top cornerback Jimmy Smith in a few practices and won some of those battles.
“Adeboyejo and other young free agents — the rookie free-agent group — are good,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “In [Adeboyejo’s] case, he is running routes really well. He has learned how to run routes very quickly. He is catching the ball well so far, but we keep the pressure on him. Take the next step, be better the next day, stack another good day, don’t be looking backwards or looking forwards.”
Steve Smith, who watched the Ravens practice Monday, has a saying for rookies at this time of year and it has been repeated often in wide receiver meetings: Make a play a day to stick around. White and Adeboyejo have taken that message to heart, but they know they have to perform when the games start.
“It’s one thing to do it at practice. It’s another thing to do it under the lights, for sure,” Adeboyejo said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do under the lights.”
Adeboyejo and White have put themselves in good position to potentially earn a 53-man roster spot, but the competition for one or two wide receiver openings behind Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin, Breshad Perriman and probably Chris Moore is deep. Michael Campanaro (River Hill) is healthy and playing well. Keenan Reynolds (Navy), Chris Matthews and Griff Whalen are also in the mix. So there’s little margin of error, especially for an undrafted free agent.
Theoretically, Adeboyejo and White could be battling for one spot and it won’t be the first time they’ve competed against one another. The two worked out together in Los Angeles before the draft and their respective pro days, battling over who can lift the most and run the fastest. They then shared in the initial disappointment of not getting drafted.
White had 3,381 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns in two years at Arizona State, but he was likely hurt by his size (5 feet 10, 181 pounds) and lack of experience. He didn’t start playing football until he was a junior in high school, and he split his time in college between football and track and field, for which he participated in the 2016 Olympic trials.
Adeboyejo (6-3, 197) had 106 catches, 1,454 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in four years at Ole Miss and he ran the fifth-fastest 40-yard dash time (4.42 seconds) among receivers at the NFL scouting combine. But he cites a disappointing senior season and a lack of steady opportunities as reasons he went undrafted in April.
“I knew all along what I was capable of. It was hard being in college and not being used as much as I could have been used,” Adeboyejo said. “Coach Harbaugh just told me [Monday], watching my film from college, that he didn’t know I was such a good route runner until I got out here. I was like, ‘I’m pretty sure nobody knew. That’s why I didn’t get drafted.’ Just having that chip on my shoulder that so many teams passed on me and nobody wanted to draft me, it adds fire to my fuel.”
White has plenty of motivation as well, and quite a story of perseverance to share. He was homeless at times as a kid and forced to sleep some nights in the backseat of a car or whatever shelter he and his family could find. His only brother, Elwood, was killed by police in 2012. He overcome academic struggles, personal hardships and long odds to even get to the point.
“I look at my grind from when I was younger and the hard times I had to face and everything I’ve been through — my brother’s death, everything — it just correlates right back here to being with the Ravens and seeing the opportunity I have and knowing it’s a challenge that I’ve been preparing myself for my whole life,” White said. “I’m here now and I just have to be me. My father, he always tells me, ‘Just be who you are. Don’t change anything. You just have to be yourself, but be a little bit better than what you were before.’ I want to come out here and perform and get better every single day I’m out here.”