There’s a basketball hoop in the middle of the Ravens’ locker room these days. James Proche II brought it to the facility not too long ago, meaning he and his fellow wide receivers can kill time with shootarounds and dunk sessions. Proche joked to Devin Duvernay that it was one of his best purchases of the year, another competitive outlet for one of the Ravens’ most interesting groups.
“They’re literally playing all the time,” tight end Mark Andrews said Tuesday. “It’s a close group. They’re a hungry group. They know what’s at stake, and they’re ready to go, man.”
Success is anything but a slam dunk, however. After trading away Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, their explosive but disgruntled No. 1 wide receiver, to the Arizona Cardinals this offseason, the Ravens are back to answering familiar offseason questions about a polarizing position.
How good can their young but unproven wide receivers be? How good do they need to be? What’s next for a group again confronting low external expectations?
“Every day, when you wake up as a coach or a player in the National Football League, you know you’ve got to bring it,” Ravens wide receivers coach Tee Martin, a former NFL wide receiver himself, said after the second day of mandatory minicamp Wednesday. “And so having been a former player in the league, and now back as a coach, it just comes with the territory. No one’s going to be harder on us than us, and no one’s going to expect more out of us than us. So, yeah, you hear it. It just adds fuel to the fire. But we’re all a self-motivated group.”
With Brown in Arizona and Sammy Watkins signing with the Green Bay Packers, there’s plenty of room for growth. Rashod Bateman, Tylan Wallace, Duvernay and Proche combined for 1,012 receiving yards last season, a total that 22 wide receivers eclipsed by themselves. Brown accounted for nearly half the position’s production, finishing with 1,008 yards in 16 games before demanding a trade in the offseason.
The Ravens didn’t worry about finding a big-name replacement. They drafted two tight ends in the fourth round, Charlie Kolar and Isaiah Likely. They signed some productive undrafted receivers. But they mostly placed their hopes in the return to form of quarterback Lamar Jackson and in the development of their talented if inexperienced wide receivers — one Day 1 draft pick (Bateman), one Day 2 pick (Duvernay) and two Day 3 picks (Wallace and Proche).
“I feel like they kind of believe in the guys they have,” said Duvernay, an All-Pro punt returner who finished fifth on the Ravens in receiving yards (272) last season. “I mean, they drafted us for a reason, I feel like. So I feel like they feel strongly about us, and every day on this practice field, we just try to prove them right in their decisions.”
The returns in minicamp have been promising. Jackson, who skipped the team’s voluntary practices in organized team activities, has elevated the team’s passing game. Bateman, a first-round pick in last year’s draft who finished with 515 yards as a rookie despite a preseason groin surgery, had a 65-yard touchdown catch Wednesday on a picture-perfect deep shot from Jackson and has been the Ravens’ top downfield threat throughout offseason workouts.
Bateman, who doesn’t turn 23 until November, will be expected to lead a group whose oldest returning contributor, Proche, is just 25.
“You do it by working and not talking, and that’s what he’s done,” Martin said. “He’s come in and just put his head down and went to work. I’ve seen him mature, just growing up. … The NFL is so different from college in terms of defensive disguises and things of that nature. But with a year under his belt, the language that we’re speaking, things of that nature, that’s where I’ve seen him grow up and mature going into this upcoming season.”
Duvernay, who was quiet in the OTA practices open to reporters, has stepped up his production during minicamp. In 11-on-11 action Wednesday, he worked the sideline for a catch on an out-breaking route and later snagged a pass in traffic on a crossing pattern.
“Much improved from last season,” Martin said. “That’s what you want to see in a young player. There were some things that we wanted to detail and improve during the offseason. He saw it on film, came back with the mentality to work, he’s been here ever since we started. Mentally, physically, he’s taken another step, and so I’m just looking forward to that translating to the field.”
Proche, whose production came in spurts last season — he had 74 yards against the Denver Broncos in October, 76 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals in December and 52 yards over the rest of the season — remains a sure-handed option in the slot.
In a two-minute drill Wednesday, Jackson found him three times in a span of four completions. First Proche freed himself from cornerback Marlon Humphrey for a short completion outside. Next, he got behind inside linebacker Patrick Queen for a nice gain over the middle. Then he caught another pass along the right sideline to stop the clock.
“Just continue to make the plays that come to him,” Martin said of Proche. “You look at last season, go back to the Denver game — he had some big grabs for us on third down. Go back to Cincinnati late in the season — some big grabs on third downs. And when he’s out there on the field playing, just continue to make the plays and do the things that we’re asking him to do within the offense.”
Wallace had one of the best routes of minicamp late in Tuesday’s practice, a double move that left safety Brandon Stephens grabbing for air as Wallace cruised down the left sideline for a big completion from quarterback Tyler Huntley. A special teams standout as a rookie, he’s shown improvement as a receiver in minicamp, catching passes at every level.
“Great hands, really good route runner, and very tough and physical,” Martin said. “I got a chance to see that on special teams. He was a guy, coming in, I didn’t know if he would play like that on special teams, and he really proved to us how tough he was on special teams.
“And it did translate to the games, where, later in the season, we depended on him to do some stuff in the run game for us as well as some empty formations and things of that nature. He had a role to play and he did a good job later in the season, and that role will expand as we move forward.”
The group’s growth could determine not only its production but also its playing time. The Ravens spent part of Wednesday’s practice lined up in three-tight-end packages, leaving room for just one wide receiver on the field. Roman, one of the NFL’s most run-heavy coordinators, hasn’t shied away from heavier personnel packages.
Andrews, an All-Pro last season, and Bateman will be tough to sideline. After them, however, it might as well be an open competition for snaps. Martin said the offense is “all about doing what we have to do to win games, regardless of the personnel that’s on the field.”
“At the end of the day, we’re just trying to prove ourselves right,” Duvernay said. “We know what we can do. We all believe in each other. I mean, no matter what the media says, what other people say, we don’t pay attention to none of that. We’re just going out there and playing ball how we know how to.”