When the Baltimore Ravens held their postseason press conferences for head coach John Harbaugh and general manager Eric DeCosta to diagnose the 2020 season, there was clear unity in their message about the wide receivers and passing game as a whole.
Yes, improvements need to be made. But they feel good about the players they have on the roster at present.
These statements can be construed as coach-speak. But the hiring of new assistant coaches Keith Williams and Tee Martin corroborate their optimism and confidence in the young wide receivers on the team.
Williams, (renowned as a “wide receiver guru”) comes in to fill the Pass Game Specialist position, while Martin, former assistant head/wide receivers coach of the Tennessee Volunteers, fills the Wide Receivers Coach spot. Both men are replacing David Culley, who wore both the Pass Game Specialist and Wide Receivers Coach hats.
Reading between the lines, there will be several benefits to having these new coaches on the staff, including their ability to get the young Baltimore wideouts in the “lab” to refine their skills. But let’s come back to that, and first focus on some of the other skills they bring.
New Coaches Have Worked with the Best
Williams and Martin inject a Super Soldier Serum of credibility to a passing attack that was a punching bag for the bulk of the 2020 season. Harbaugh and DeCosta staunchly defended against the perception that wide receivers wouldn’t want to come play for the Ravens in a run-heavy scheme. However, by adding Williams and Martin to the staff and avoiding the conventional retread path, they have at least conceded that they need to bring in outside influencers who have a strong connection with some of the game’s best pass catchers.
Williams has worked with Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill, arguably “the” two best wideouts in the NFL, at least in 2020. Adams put together his most prolific season and it comes after having what he defined as a down year in 2019, when he failed to gain over 1,000 yards. Route running and the ability to gain yards after contact were his core areas of focus for improvement, and Williams was his Jedi master.
“I feel like he’s evolved my mindset as far as the run after the catch more than anything,” Adams said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “He started that phrase that I started off with: ‘Make them tackle you. Don’t get tackled.’ ”
When you watch Adams run routes, you see a study in precision on how to establish a clean release from the line, sell the initial stem, and separate from the defender. These are all areas in which Ravens pass-catchers could use improvement.
In the case of Hill, Williams’ work is even more impressive when you consider “The Cheetah” wasn’t exactly known for his route running ability earlier in his career. However, Williams has had a major influence on his ability to refine his technique, especially his footwork. If you look at both Hill and Sammy Watkins, who also worked with Williams last year, the two wideouts are prime examples of “speed” WRs who now run the complete route tree.
Martin has an equally impressive resume when it comes to the receivers he’s helped to develop as a college coach at Kentucky and Southern California: Randall Cobb, Robert Woods, and JuJu Smith-Schuster are among the group. All of these receivers are adept at creating space as route runners and have experience playing all over the field. In the case of Cobb, his transformation as one of the craftiest slot receivers has been profound from his days in college as a former quarterback.
Having both coaches on the staff should elevate the perception among free agents of Baltimore as a realistic destination (no matter what anyone from the organization wants to say about that perception currently.) At a critical time in which the franchise is trying to get over the hump in the playoffs, the opportunity to land both of these young, plugged-in coaches, especially coming from the college ranks (which is atypical of where the Ravens’ coaching hires normally come from), couldn’t have been more important.
Maybe it’s a stretch to say Williams and Martin could have recruiting cache for the class of free agents set to hit the market in March. But maybe it’s not a stretch? Every little bit helps. For instance, in the case of a guy like Smith-Schuster (set to be an unrestricted free agent), he already has a connection with Martin. Watkins is also set to hit the market and Williams could be an influence.
Can They Work Their Magic Here?
Now, let’s shift to how these hires could impact the Ravens’ current development priorities.
I’ve seen some fan sentiment that the team needs to overhaul the receiver unit and start over between free agency and the draft. I don’t agree with that take. I believe the coaching staff has some real talent to work with. And the number one job for Williams and Martin will be to get the most out of the talent already on the roster.
DeCosta has invested a first, two thirds, and a sixth-round pick on wide receivers in the last two drafts. That’s hardly a throwaway investment at the position. One could argue — and that one is me — that they should have invested a higher pick on a receiver in last year’s draft, given how special that class was.
However, the point remains: the Ravens have been trying to prioritize WR through the draft. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown has my confidence as a guy still capable of being a go-to receiver for the team. Jonas Schaffer from the Baltimore Sun wrote a detailed statistical and film analysis of Brown’s second half of 2020 and how his production compared favorably with some of the best WRs in the game. Brown, for all intents and purposes, was every bit a WR1 after his disastrous no-catch performance against Tennessee. And he was especially great in the playoffs against those same Titans and against the Bills.
Whether Brown is ultimately more of a 1B option or a strong No.2 is splitting hairs. The Ravens rightly view him as an ascending player. You could easily argue that aside from an awful month of November and some early drops, Brown met the preseason hype — as much as you can in a run-first offensive framework. Once offensive coordinator Greg Roman opened up the playbook for Brown and used him in various ways (slot, quick hitters, verticals), he was a true weapon for Lamar Jackson.
The thought of Williams working with Brown — who shares some similar physical traits to Hill and Watkins — is enticing. As I’ve noted, Brown still needs to work on his footwork and ability to adjust his routes to beat specific coverages, so the upside is there for him to grow.
In the case of the other receivers, there is some more work ahead for Williams and Martin.
At this point, Miles Boykin remains an enigma. Is he someone that can be salvaged or is he just not physical enough to really play up to his size? That remains to be seen. Of all the receivers, he might be on the shortest leash, but it’s fair to say he’s also been overlooked and underutilized, especially on post and other in-breaking routes he should win.
Duvernay could potentially take the biggest leap next season under their tutelage. The former Texas Longhorn has plenty of raw physical ability — vertical speed, YAC strength — but lacks nuanced route-running skills. With an offseason of work in the lab, he should be able to expand his route tree and offer a legitimate slot option to take over for Willie Snead, who is likely out the door as a free agent.
Proche is already a more nuanced route runner who had arguably the best hands of the 2020 draft class. He needs more snaps and could improve against press/man coverage, which is an area in which most young, undersized WRs struggle.
This isn’t to say that this group can be confidently counted on to rise all at once and propel the passing game in a single offseason. Martin and Williams aren’t miracle workers. The front office will still need to invest free agency dollars and draft capital on the position this offseason.
Logically, with Snead likely departing as a free agent along with receiver Chris Moore, there will be two spots open. Adding at least one veteran from a decorated free agent class and one rookie from a deep WR draft class makes a ton of sense.
However, these hires signify that the organization is taking the passing game improvements seriously, and much of those improvements need to come internally. That means coaching up the young receivers and self-scouting the passing game as a whole.
Martin and Williams are delivering a wealth of knowledge and innovative methods to help the Baltimore coaching staff take definitive steps forward in 2021.