NFL training camp is pretty boring, at least from a spectator’s point of view. Sure, there are players wearing pads and engaging in activities that resemble football—a nice appetizer after a long offseason. But let’s be real: It’s just practice, which is like a flavored seltzer. There’s only a hint of real football in there.
That hasn’t stopped Baltimore Ravens fans from packing the stands of the team’s Owings Mills, Maryland, facility on this brutally hot August day, though. Nor has it stopped them from getting excited as the team switches from warm-ups and individual drills to one-on-ones, with defensive backs and pass catchers going up against one another. Specifically, they’re clamoring to see Baltimore’s star cornerback, Marlon Humphrey, battle with Rashod Bateman, the receiver the team drafted in the first round in 2021 with the hopes that he could develop into Lamar Jackson’s go-to target for the next decade.
At this point, we’re about two weeks into camp, and the Humphrey-vs.-Bateman matchups have been the main event throughout. Most people in the facility are wearing purple, but it’s not hard to figure out who the crowd is rooting for in the bouts. This franchise has been searching for a true WR1 since it arrived in Baltimore in the mid-1990s, and it’s mostly come up empty. Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Smith Sr. gave the Ravens some productive seasons, but all three were on the wrong side of 30 when they joined the team and spent the peaks of their respective careers with other franchises. This fan base has never had a star wideout to claim as its own.
“I do know the history of the receivers in Baltimore,” the 22-year-old Bateman told me after practice. “I just want to be that guy.”
And if the Ravens want the offense to resemble the one we saw in 2019, and compete for a Super Bowl, they need him to be that guy.
Baltimore’s offense took a major step back in 2021—the second season in a row that’s happened. After leading the NFL in expected points added per play in 2019, the Ravens dropped to sixth in 2020 and 19th in 2021, per RBSDM.com. Some have pinned the regression on Jackson’s development (or lack thereof) as a pocket passer—and an ankle injury his critics swore was inevitable given his playing style. But it takes only about five minutes of watching him play football to realize how silly that notion is. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has heard his fair share of criticism as well (including from yours truly in a piece I wrote in December). The running game hasn’t been able to reach the historic heights it did three years ago. And former Ravens receiver Willie Snead claimed that more pass catchers would flock to Baltimore “if the Ravens had more creativity in the passing game and they put more emphasis on it during the season.” But the real blame for this offensive regression belongs to the front office, which hasn’t given Roman or Lamar the right receiving corps to build the creative passing game the team so desperately needs.
While other teams with young franchise passers have surrounded them with proven talent, the Ravens have mostly gone to the bargain bin. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was a first-round pick in 2019, but he was taken after the team had traded down to the bottom of the round. And the rest of the corps has been filled by cheap free-agent deals for veteran guys like Sammy Watkins, Dez Bryant, and Snead, or late-round fliers on role-player types.
Brown, who served as the team’s WR1 during Lamar’s first three seasons as starter, stands 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds. And while he’s a good player, as evidenced by the fact that the Cardinals gave up a first-round pick to land him in a draft-day trade, he wouldn’t stand out on a Pop Warner sideline, and the Ravens were asking him to run routes over the middle of the field—you know, the ones where you need some bulk to absorb hits from lurking safeties and linebackers. Roman didn’t really have another option, but it just wasn’t Brown’s game.
It is Bateman’s game, though—at least in theory. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound wideout played like a traditional “X receiver” both at Minnesota and in limited appearances during his rookie year. He can deal with press coverage, make contested catches in traffic, and be relied upon to get open against man coverage. Having one of those receivers is almost a prerequisite for fielding an effective passing game in today’s NFL.
“Guys like that are real gems,” Roman said of those true no. 1 receivers. “As [Bateman] develops, it’s going to become a real situation where any time he’s in a one-on-one situation with no help, we can go to him. … It’s invaluable.”
That skill set was all over Bateman’s college film. But nagging injuries limited him to just four starts last season (12 games played overall), and after an underwhelming debut campaign, Bateman comes into year two facing some pressure. He caught just 46 passes for 515 yards and one touchdown in 2021. And between his injuries and Jackson’s, the two started just two games—and 184 pass snaps, per nflfastR—together.
And when Bateman was out there, he wasn’t exactly given a dynamic role. After playing on the perimeter and in the slot at Minnesota, the Ravens basically parked him on the left side of the field.
And those isolated opportunities Roman alluded to earlier? Bateman didn’t get them very often, as a majority of them went to Brown. Still, in limited time, Bateman was able to prove he is a chain mover. The rookie just narrowly edged out Mark Andrews for the team lead in third-down success rate, per the nflfastR database. More importantly, his rate of success on those plays was 20 percentage points higher than Brown’s. That’s what the Ravens need more of than anything: an outlet for Lamar who can reliably get open on third down.
Now that Bateman is stepping into Brown’s role as the focal point of the receiving corps, those opportunities should increase—and his route tree will be more dynamic, even if that’s not a high bar to clear.
Roman says the Ravens have put new stuff into their scheme in order to “showcase” Bateman in 2022. Based on my observations at camp, that will likely include more isolation routes on the backside of trips formations and more forays into the slot. And don’t be surprised if he gets a few handoffs on jet sweeps after getting no carries in 2021. “I think they’re looking at offense differently overall,” Bateman said when I asked how his role would change this season. “We’re changing our approach to the game.”
Bateman wasn’t at liberty to discuss any changes in detail, obviously, but Roman has hinted that significant shifts are coming to the passing game. He’s told reporters throughout the summer that 20 percent of the playbook is new, and with Lamar continuing to progress as a passer after reworking his mechanics in the offseason, Roman says those tweaks will allow him to call the game differently.
Now, Roman isn’t going to sacrifice his precious run game. That’s always going to be the engine that makes his scheme go—and with a special runner like Jackson at quarterback, it makes sense. But having a guy like Bateman, who can win on the perimeter, will allow the offense to spread things out a bit. Since Roman took over the offensive reins in 2019, the Ravens haven’t really tried to throw the ball outside the numbers. They rank dead last in yards gained on throws to the perimeter during that span, per Sports Info Solutions, Jackson’s first full season as a starter. And because of that, defenses have been able to ignore those wider areas and focus on the middle of the field, constricting space for both the run and pass games.
The lack of an intimidating presence on the outside hasn’t helped matters. Brown was fast, sure, but, again, he’s small and not very good at tracking a deep ball anyway. Opposing defenses just smothered him at the line of scrimmage and kept him from getting downfield before the pass rush got home. They didn’t have to put a safety over the top at all times, and they certainly weren’t doing so for Sammy Watkins in 2021. The result: The Ravens faced the second-shallowest safety alignment in the league last season after finishing with the lowest in 2019 and 2020, per Next Gen Stats. So not only was space constricted horizontally but also vertically. It becomes a lot easier to play defense when there’s less ground to cover.
The goal with Bateman is to force defenses to cover more ground, which means more space in the run game and clearer throwing lanes over the middle. The Ravens enjoyed both in 2019, when they steamrolled the league and Lamar had his best statistical year as a passer, so for Jackson, the benefits are obvious. He is already the league’s most dangerous player in space, and his issues with accuracy or timing (which are overblown) would be mitigated by those bigger passer windows. But Bateman isn’t just going to step out on the field in Week 1 and command safety help right away. He has to prove he is a threat first.
Throughout Ravens camp, he’s looked the part. In the two days I was there, nobody could cover him, even a star like Humphrey. “I know what he can do on the field,” Humphrey said in August. “I know he hasn’t shown it [in live games] yet, but anyone around here in the building has seen what he can do.”
Bateman beat Humphrey deep twice in the session I watched, drawing the approval of a crowd that is thirsty for a receiver who can win those matchups more often than not. When I asked Bateman who had the edge in those one-on-ones, the young receiver took the diplomatic route.
“I’ll say it’s about even,” Bateman said. “I’ve won some. Marlon’s won some. And it’s not only the one-on-ones—those are just the ones people see. We’re going at it in team reps and seven-on-sevens, and it’s 50-50.
“I mean, it’s just two elite guys working so it’s going to be an even battle.”
A big grin stretched across Bateman’s face as soon as the word “elite” left his mouth. It’s one thing to say that about a corner who’s made an All-Pro Team, but another to say it about yourself after going for one touchdown in your rookie season. But Bateman clearly has the confidence of a true no. 1 receiver. And if that confidence isn’t misplaced, Ravens fans will have a lot more than a couple of training camp one-on-ones to cheer about in 2022.