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Beyond the Pro Bowl: A look at the Ravens most underrated unit

Overlooked but not underappreciated, a tip of the cap to the Ravens wide receiver unit

Baltimore Ravens v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

With the announcement that the Ravens were honored with 12 Pro Bowl selections, credit the front office and coaching staff for putting together a Super Bowl caliber roster. It is an ode to the players for putting in the work and dedication to be great with a bigger goal in mind. For a franchise that was headed towards perpetual mediocrity with a tired and uninterested fanbase, this season is the start of a new era.

The Ravens are finding success while steamrolling opponents and have done so by playing complete, physical and team-oriented football at every level. The front office has hit on first round draft picks dating back to the selection of Ronnie Stanley and most recently with Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, while utilizing late round picks and overlooked undrafted players. They have a converted defensive lineman playing the fullback position at an All-Pro level while street free agents Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort have stepped in and solidified the defense after early season struggles.

The unconventional approach to the way the Ravens have dominated the National Football League is the direct result of a complete organizational buy-in starting with the front office and trickling down to the role players who are tasked with doing their specific job at the highest level possible.

Star players such as Lamar Jackson, Mark Ingram and Marcus Peters, to name a few, have gotten most of the national recognition, including their recent selection to the Pro Bowl. But what about the dirty work put in by players who have sacrificed individual stats for the greater good of the team? I’m here to shine the spotlight on the most underappreciated position group on the team: Wide receivers.

The Ravens made it clear early in the offseason that they were targeting a specific kind of player with a skill set that differed from the prototype most commonly found in todays NFL. They weren’t interested in diva personalities who were looking to pad their individual stats and win fantasy football leagues. They coveted physical and willing blockers to complement a dominate run game. When asked in February what his ideal wide receiver addition would bring, newly minted offensive coordinator Greg Roman said as much.

“Guys that can get open, catch the ball, but I think one thing that’s unique – we need that tough guy too here that can go out and block a nickel, block a safety and win that matchup,” Roman said. “I think that’s very important here as we move forward.”

General manager Eric DeCosta echoed this sentiment in the Ravens end of year presser as the front office entered their first full offseason with plans of a developing a “revolutionary” offense the league had yet seen.

“You’d like the guy to have some toughness and some speed, some route ability, there’s a lot of different things you look for.” DeCosta said. “Blocking as a wide receiver for us is important. It’s really important. Again, we’ll hash these guys out in the draft meetings and free agency and try to find the guys that fit us best, fit our identity that we like.”

With the first draft pick of his tenure as General Manager, DeCosta selected a 5’ 10 170-pound receiver in Marquise Brown who was known exclusively for his game-breaking speed and playmaking ability. It was important to add a player with speed if they were going to be successful in keeping defenses honest and prevent them from stacking the box in order to stop the run. But that didn’t necessarily fit the bill of “tough” and “physical” which were terms used repeatedly when explaining their ideal type of receiver.

Many pointed to the lack of success John Brown had in the offense after Jackson took over in 2018 and questioned if this was the kind of receiver that could thrive with a quarterback like Jackson. Fast-forward to Week 16 and ‘Hollywood’ is tied for the rookie lead in touchdown passes and has been the consummate teammate to Jackson as both have developed a chemistry on and off the field reflecting a close friendship. Remember when John Brown would hang his head and sulk when the ball wasn’t coming his way? That type of attitude simply wouldn’t work on this team.

On the field, Brown plays bigger than his size and doesn’t seem to get bothered by games in which he puts up minimal statistics. You never hear that he is disgruntled, rather that he takes advantage of the opportunities he is given and is willing to do what the team asks of him. Most recently against the Jets, he was very involved in the pass game, but it was in the run game where he flashed and showed his chops as a blocker. When your 170-pound receiver is delivering physical blocks on primetime, you start to see why the unit has been so successful.

Fellow rookie wide receiver Miles Boykin fit a different bill coming out of college as more of a physical specimen, standing at 6’ 4” 220-pounds. At first look, he complements Brown well as the bigger body receiver who could be more of a red zone threat and jump ball specialist. He is also a very refined and willing blocker who has carved out a significant role on the team well beyond catching footballs.

While he hasn’t lit up the stat sheet and his contributions to the team have gone largely unnoticed, it is time to give Boykin the recognition he deserves for stepping in as a rookie and embracing the uglier side of being a professional receiver. Simply put, the Ravens historic run game is a product of all 11 players on the field doing their job with a larger goal in mind. Boykin has consistently held key blocks downfield to open the sidelines for runners to gain extra yards. He has taken on linebackers while sacrificing games where he won’t even see a single target. Boykin will continue to develop as a pass catcher, but what he has done in his rookie season to benefit the offense is invaluable.

You can’t describe the 2019 Ravens offense without the word “toughness”. This is a unit that will beat you to a pulp with physicality and keep their foot on the throttle until the white flag is waved. Nobody on the receiving core better fits this bill than Willie Snead IV. The only returning receiver from the 2018 season, he was an instant hit in this offense with his ability to grind out the tough yards and move the chains for the offense.

Snead doesn’t blow you away with speed or athleticism but makes up for it as an excellent possession receiver and willing blocker. When Jackson took over as the starter in 2018, it felt like both Michael Crabtree and John Brown had a tough time meshing with the philosophical change to the offense. Snead thrived off it and has been a staunch supporter of Jackson despite the negative analysis that followed him all offseason. Snead has completely bought in and was rewarded with a contract extension, assuring he stays in Baltimore through the 2020 season.

After coming over from Oakland, Seth Roberts has seen his receiving production decline from previous years. Seeing only five targets once this season, who would blame him for becoming disgruntled about his role? It’s been quite the opposite for Roberts who went on record to say this has been his favorite team to be apart of in his professional career.

After the 41-7 annihilation of the Houston Texans, Jackson chose to speak about his desire to get Roberts his first touchdown of the season after working his tail off as a blocker and not about his personal accolades. The quarterback realizes the unconventional work the receivers are putting in and wants nothing more than to reward them for their hard work.

All offseason we heard about how the Ravens had the worst receiver core in the NFL. We heard how they were going to struggle through the air, relying on rookie receivers and cast-offs from other teams. We saw the duo of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. put on a pedestal as players who were going to light up the scoreboard with second-year darling quarterback Baker Mayfield. As Ravens fans, we need to be thankful to the front office for putting together a receiving room full of hard workers who are team first. Guys who won’t throw a tantrum when the ball isn’t coming their way, or when their quarterback goes through struggles. You won’t see any of these guys running to the opposing sideline saying, “come get me.”

Simply put, this is a special Ravens team, and this wide receiver unit is a huge part of that whether they get the accolades or recognition. They are the perfect blend of players to complement this hard-nosed offense. They have their quarterback’s back, and he has theirs.

Hats off to the most underrated position group on the team, your contributions have not gone unnoticed.