First-round wide receivers are often set up for an interesting experience in the modern NFL. With the way the passing game has exploded over the past decade, and offenses have in some ways tilted towards all-or-nothing explosive aerial attacks (a-la MLB with the low variance home run approach vs. small-ball), there’s never been a better time to be a talented young wideout entering the league.
That is, if you’re ready to stand up to the scrutiny and expectations that come along with being not only a first rounder at the position, but even a Day 2 guy. With offenses more pass-happy than ever, receivers picked early in the draft are expected to contribute in big ways, which can especially be the case if a team picks them with the explicit implication (tacitly made or not) that the player will start from day one.
This was the case when the Baltimore Ravens picked Marquise “Hollywood” Brown at No. 25 overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. Quarterback Lamar Jackson was poised to take over as the team’s starting quarterback, there was a need at wide receiver, and the Ravens (partially at the urging of Jackson) selected him to effectively be one of the team’s top wideouts from day one.
The results so far have been decidedly mixed, though this isn’t totally to do with Brown’s play, and more to do with the aforementioned expectations that come along with being a first rounder at his position. With 104 receptions, 1,353 yards, and 15 touchdowns, the numbers tell the story of a solid, if unspectacular, late first-round pick at the position; if you had told Ravens fans a few years ago they’d be signing on for that with Brown, the sensible among them would largely be fine with it.
However, his numbers don’t tell the whole story, in both good ways and bad. We all know the bad: Dropped passes in big moments, questionable social media usage after a disappointing game, and stretches where he (and all of his game-breaking talent) seems to disappear for weeks at a time.
But what about the good? He has an obvious chemistry with Jackson that no other Ravens wide receiver has replicated, big play potential that has shown up huge when the team needs it, as well as something else that’s a bit more abstract, but well understood after his first two years… that there’s still untapped potential within Brown to be something more for the team than he’s already been.
How can Greg Roman and the Ravens unlock said potential? The good news is, they’ve already taken the first few steps.
Meet the new boss(es)
This offseason, the Ravens went out and landed two new coaches in Tee Martin and Keith Williams, the team’s new wide receivers coach and pass game specialist, respectively. For a young and raw wide receiving corps, fresh perspective at these positions could be key to unlocking the potential of a player like Brown, who has been productive in his career, but never seemed to find that final gear under the more established, but perhaps too familiar David Culley.
There isn’t much of a way to tangibly assess the effect of them so far, but inasmuch as we can, the reviews have been good. It’s more so the presence of these two new coaches, plus some additions made to the roster that could really allow Hollywood to thrive this season.
X marks the spot
One of the more hot-button terms you’ll come across on the Ravens Twittersphere is “X Receiver.” This is often loosely thrown around by fans to simply mean a “true No. 1 wide receiver,” which is a more abstract concept than can be boiled down to a single term.
We (and I say “we,” because I’ve been guilty of this as well), simply want 80% of what someone like wide receiver Anquan Boldin brought to the Ravens offense in Joe Flacco’s heyday - tough over the middle, reliable hands, and clutch on money downs. But what’s interesting about the idea of an X receiver is that there actually is a defined idea of what one is and does down-to-down, and with that actually comes it’s own set of limitations that something like a “Z” receiver doesn’t face.
A 2012 Field Gulls article written by The Ringer’s Danny Kelly breaks it all down in further detail via an explanation provided by former NFL quarterback Hugh Millen:
“The X receiver is the split end,” Millen said. “He is the widest receiver away from the tight end. What’s unique about him, — as opposed to the Z receiver, who is the flanker, and the other wide receiver — is that the X receiver, in most formations, and of course, there are a lot of exceptions, but in most formations, the X receiver, the split end — and those expressions are used synonymously — he is tethered to the line of scrimmage. He’s on the line of scrimmage, he cannot go in motion, and so, when he’s facing a cornerback, as he almost always is, the cornerback can jam him at the line. So, your X receiver, he better have the profile of a guy that has the speed to get down the sideline, he better have the quickness to get away from the corner, and he better be good coming off a press.”
So in short, the layman is correct in their assessment that a receiver cut to the profile of somebody like Boldin is the ideal X, but what’s somewhat lost in the shuffle is the governors put in place on a receiver when they line up as one. On the line of scrimmage and unable to go in motion, they’re more susceptible to getting jammed at release, and counted upon to get themselves open rather than doing so via function of the offense.
It’s no secret that Brown already doesn’t quite fit this skill set at 5’9’, 181 lbs, with him being better utilized as a deep threat or a weapon around the line of scrimmage that makes his hay in run-after-catch situations. If you’re unable to go in motion, or able to be pressed at the snap (which is doubly dangerous due to his diminutive stature), you likely aren’t going to be taken fully advantage of if you’re operating with a toolkit like Hollywood’s.
Per Sports Info Solutions (with an assist from our own Spencer Schultz), Brown lined up at isolated wide receiver side (effectively the X for our purposes here), 81 times in 2020. He was targeted 21 times with 11 receptions and four drops on 16 catchable passes, hauling in 95 yards and two touchdowns on 246 intended air yards; he converted six first downs, and tallied just 19 yards after catch.
By definition, both an X receiver, and a player of Brown’s capabilities isn’t exactly conducive to being the most efficient player on the field making him lineup from there not necessarily the best fit. Per the Field Gulls article, Hugh Millen further explains what the other wideout, or the “Z” receiver is responsible for:
“Now, the Z receiver, the ‘flanker,’ who is on the opposite side of the split end, he, in most formations, is going to be off the line of scrimmage a few yards. That enables the tight end to be eligible, because if the Z receiver were on the line, it would make the tight end ineligible. That flanker, that Z receiver — and again, those terms are synonymous —that is still a wide receiver. He’s going against cornerbacks, he has to be able to have the speed and the acceleration to beat cornerbacks, but, from time-to-time, you can run him in motion because he’s off the line of scrimmage, you can get him down in the slot and run for passes over the middle, so, there’s a little bit of the characteristics of a slot receiver inherent in the Z receiver. But, by and large, those guys are much different than the slot receiver. From the slot standpoint, in zone coverage, a linebacker will usually walk out and kind of be head-up over you, if you’re a slot receiver, and you’ve kind of got to be able to beat a linebacker. But, he’s not going to trail you - he’ll pass you over in zone, so if you’re a slot receiver like Doug Baldwin was last year for the majority of his catches, he’s now going in between the safeties, and the linebackers, and he’s got an entirely different challenge to beat those defenders, than he would when he’s lined up as a wide receiver (X or Z).”
Per SIS, when Brown lined up in non-isolated wide alignments (which could be either Z or X, and by definition puts other weapons and traffic in his orbit), he was much more efficient. On 34 routes run he received 33 targets, catching 22 and dropping 2 of his 26 catchable looks, hauling in 327 yards of his 456 intended air yards; additionally, he scored once, had 12 first downs, and (perhaps most crucially) had 128 yards after the catch, and 74 yards after contact.
Even with the concession that this does include what are assumed to be some X snaps, it appears that Hollywood’s numbers bear him out to be a player who does his best work either in a Z role, or with help around him. It’s mainly for this reason that 2021 could prove to be huge for the third-year wideout.
He and Mark Andrews were a dynamite pairing in college, and have proved to be one in the pros, but outside of the Ravens exceptional tight end, Brown hasn’t had many other players around him to draw attention in the passing game; Bengals safety Jessie Bates literally said as much after the Ravens first game against Cincinnati in 2020. Enter two wide receivers: Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman.
Honestly, you could even include a few more of the additions Baltimore has made, whether it be wide receiver Tylan Wallace or the return of tight end Nick Boyle, but it’s the concrete roles the Ravens top ticket wide receiving acquisitions will play in 2021 that could really free Brown up for a big year. Once thought of as a generational deep threat, Watkins has now settled into the role of a savvy possession receiver who thrives in big moments; Bateman arrives on the scene as the prototypical idea of what Baltimore needs in the passing game, and projects as somebody who could fill into the “X” role as it was described above by Hugh Millen.
That of course leaves Hollywood, now finally ready to settle into the role that’s best suited for him: The Z receiver, or the robin to Baltimore’s new Batman in Bateman. Off the line of scrimmage and able to go in motion more often, he’ll be less relied upon to operate in a phone booth with the physical cornerbacks the league offers on a week-to-week basis, and instead receive looks in space and receive the manufactured touches that he was incredible with at Oklahoma.
A continued evolution
None of this is a guarantee, of course. Greg Roman has coordinated some of the best offensive football we’ve ever seen in Baltimore, but has also come under fire (sometimes fairly) for a lack of creativity in the passing game.
The response in his defense was that he’s never had the full complement of personnel needed to take this offense to the next level through the air. This is a fair argument in it’s own right.
Despite a higher volume of investment by Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta at wide receiver, not all of the moves have panned out. Miles Boykin (the big-bodied philosophical foil to Hollywood’s jitterbug Z receiver profile) has not panned out, while DeCosta’s other picks (such as the talented but raw wide receiver Devin Duvernay) are nothing more than a wait-and-see at this point, optimistically.
If Watkins can bring the veteran sensibility this corps needs, and Bateman in turn provides the possession based spark they’re sorely lacking, the excuses will have officially run out.
For his sake, he’ll have to hope that these new additions (and the subsequent changes to his role they’ll provide), will be enough to earn him one. On an optimistic note, they (and whatever work he chooses to put in between then and now) will have him well setup to earn it with a big performance in 2021.