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Pass game blues— Ravens need top receivers healthy to move forward

With half their receiving room injured, how much of a leap can Lamar Jackson take?

The Baltimore Ravens took the practice field Tuesday without most of their key wide receivers.

In addition, Deon Cain was absent, who had a strong camp prior to sustaining an injury that has kept him sidelined over the past few weeks. The Ravens are left with Devin Duvernay, Tylan Wallace, Jaylon Moore, Siaosi Mariner, Binjimen Victor and Devin Gray. That’s not exactly the lineup that General Manager Eric DeCosta envisioned after he acquired three new receivers via the draft and free agency. Most notably, first round draft pick Rashod Bateman’s injury required groin surgery. His exact timetable for recovery is unknown.

While other offensive standouts Nick Boyle and Ronnie Stanley work their way back from injury, Baltimore’s starting offense has barely limped through training camp and the preseason. Lamar Jackson missed 10 days after testing positive for COVID, which means that he has spent little to no time with Marquise Brown or Rashod Bateman this offseason. While additional reps with Devin Duvernay and Tylan Wallace will make a difference, Baltimore desperately needs Bateman, Watkins and Brown to return to the field.

Lamar Jackson has racked up 5,884 yards passing to go along with 62 passing touchdowns over the past two seasons. However, Jackson has found hardly any success when targeting outside receivers.

  • 2020: 47/81 569 yards, 4 TD 2 INT, 38th in EPA
  • 2019: 44/73 530 yards, 3 TD 1 INT, 16th in EPA

Of Jackson’s total passing production, only 1,099 yards (18.6%) and seven touchdowns (11.2%) have been throw to outside receivers. For comparison, ten quarterbacks threw more touchdowns and yards to outside receivers in 2020 alone.

This does ignore the success that Jackson’s had targeting slot receivers and tight ends over the last two years, but it’s not simply and indictment alone of the passer entering his fourth year in the NFL. It’s an indictment of Jackson, the receivers, the offensive coordinator, receivers coach and everyone in between. In fact, the dearth of talent and/or trust for outside receiving options was so scare, only one receiver caught more than seven passes in boundary alignments in 2020— Marquise Brown. Brown caught 26 of 42 targets in such alignments for 398 yards (15.3 per reception) and two touchdowns. The next closest was Miles Boykin, who caught 7 of 19 targets for 119 yards and one touchdown. There may be no bigger insight into the lack of talent on the outside than the fact that Baltimore brought in Dez Bryant half way through the season— nearly three years removed from playing in an NFL game— and he was tied for fourth in targets from the outside. . . alongside running back J.K. Dobbins.

While unheralded for his role in Baltimore, Seth Roberts caught 18 receptions from outside alignments for 208 yards. No receiver aside from Brown has more receptions or yards combined over the last two seasons. Another emphatic tell tale of how desperately Baltimore has needed receiving talent on the outside.

Additionally, Jackson wasn’t that inaccurate when targeting outside receivers. Could he improve consistency in his footwork and ball placement? Absolutely. The Ravens franchise quarterback ranked 20th among all passers with 40 attempts to outside receivers in on-target throw percentage (71.5%). Notable passers Jackson ranked ahead of in on-target throw percentage:

  • Deshaun Watson
  • Ben Roethlisberger
  • Aaron Rodgers
  • Matthew Stafford
  • Daniel Jones
  • Cam Newton
  • Justin Herbert

The good news is that several of those issues have already been addressed. Eric DeCosta added Sammy Watkins, Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace through free agency and the draft earlier this year.

Each receiver (Bateman and Wallace with their respective college teams) when targeted from outside alignments over the last two years:

  • Watkins: 36/56, 412 yards 2 TD’s.
  • Bateman: 58/87, 1,118 yards, 9 TD’s.
  • Wallace: 97/154, 1,497 yards, 10 TD’s.

Those three combined with Marquise Brown present a much more formidable group of athletic, nuanced perimeter receiving weapons to deploy in the Ravens passing offense. While Bateman played mostly in the slot throughout his COVID-19 shortened 2020 season in Minnesota, he was probably the most prolific outside receiver not named DeVonta Smith in all of college football in 2019. Here are Bateman’s 2019 ranks among 191 FBS receivers with at least 35 receptions in boundary alignments.

  • Points earned: 5th.
  • Points earned per route: 2nd.
  • EPA: 7th.
  • EPA/target: 4th.
  • Yards/route run: 3rd.
  • Yards/target: 3rd.
  • Missed and forced tackles/reception: 17th.

With the Ravens perimeter passing attack stalling out in each of the last three postseasons, the key to unlocking a Super Bowl run may rely on Brown, Watkins, Wallace and Bateman’s ability to win one on one and force defenses to respect the Ravens perimeter passing attack. The issue? Only one of those four receivers currently have a clean bill of health. Bateman may very well miss every practice leading up to the Ravens regular season opener. Watkins hasn’t practiced in a week. Brown has missed all but one practice since the start of training camp. Wallace, the lone survivor of the group, has flashed at times. He won’t be able to carry the load alone.

After the three additions to Marquise Brown’s skillset, it would be hard to imagine that the Ravens would spend zero days in training camp without even three of the four to run routes for Lamar Jackson. It’s the reality that the Ravens currently find themselves in. While it’s a harsh reality, John Harbaugh’s team must embrace the challenge, get their receivers up to speed as soon as they’re healthy, then strive forward looking to win their division and push for a conference championship, then Super Bowl. After three consecutive playoff losses, simply putting on their dancing shoes isn’t enough.

All statistics in this article were provided by Sports Info Solutions.