The similarities between Marquise Brown and Mark Clayton are impossible to miss.
Both were star wide receivers for the Oklahoma Sooners. Both were drafted in the first round by the Ravens – Clayton at No. 22 overall in 2005 and Brown at No. 25 overall in 2019.
Yup, quite similar.
In his first two seasons in Baltimore, Clayton caught 111 passes for 1,410 yards and seven touchdowns. Brown, in his first two seasons, caught 104 passes for 1,353 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Yup, quite similar.
But now it's an unsettling comparison for the Ravens.
Seemingly poised to take flight after two seasons, Clayton, instead, saw his production decline and never developed into a No. 1-caliber receiver. Although he amassed a respectable 234 receptions in five seasons in Baltimore, he eventually was traded.
Now, similarly, the Ravens believe Brown is poised to take flight and possibly emerge as a No. 1-caliber receiver. They're hoping the parallels to Clayton abruptly end.
A year ago, I zeroed in on Clayton for an episode of my podcast, What Happened to That Guy? Now 38, he is a successful entrepreneur in Texas, focused on enhancing management opportunities at Black-owned businesses.
I interviewed Brian Billick, who coached the Ravens early in Clayton's career. Billick's take was interesting. It didn't help, Billick said, that the Ravens were unsettled at quarterback in Clayton's years; Kyle Boller, Anthony Wright, Steve McNair, Troy Smith and Joe Flacco threw passes to him.
"You really don't develop that relationship" with a quarterback as a result, Billick said.
Billick also said a "lack of other presence at receiver" hindered Clayton's development. Derrick Mason was reliable and productive on the other side of the offense, but otherwise, the cupboard was startlingly bare. Mason and Clayton were the only Baltimore wide receivers with more than 22 receptions in a season from 2005 to 2008.
"That probably made it a little tougher for Mark to have the kind of impact you would expect from a first-round pick," Billick said. "Mark would've fared much better if we'd had a dominant No. 1."
I don't know if the Ravens are reflecting on the arc of Clayton's career as they contemplate how to handle Brown, but it sure seems they're pointedly trying to put Brown in a better situation.
It helps that they're firmly set at quarterback with one of the NFL's top playmakers, Lamar Jackson, instead of sorting through various options. Jackson and Brown are close friends who already have that on-field "relationship" Billick referenced.
It also helps that the NFL has evolved since Clayton played, with teams looking to build larger, more electrifying wide receiver corps. The Ravens are working on it. In 2021, they've signed Sammy Watkins, a veteran with a record of explosiveness, and drafted Rashod Bateman with a first-round pick.
They've also drafted Tylan Wallace, Devin Duvernay, Miles Boykin and James Proche II along with Bateman and Brown in the past three years, creating an entire wave of young receiving talent.
Obviously, they aren't doing it all just to help Brown; they're trying to ramp up a passing game that ranked last in the league in yards per game in 2020.
But Brown stands to benefit tremendously. The Ravens will still likely operate the NFL's most run-oriented offense in 2021, but they've signaled they're going to pass more. And with Watkins and Bateman lined up beside him, Brown figures to receive less attention from defenses.
"I really think it will probably take some pressure off some of the guys who have been here, like Marquise, and free him up," Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman said last month.
The Ravens didn't draft Clayton or Brown to be complimentary pieces; each was viewed as a potential home-run hitter. With more than twice as many touchdown catches as Clayton in his first two seasons, Brown is exhibiting more of the home-run knack.
But the Ravens have learned not to take his continued development for granted.
One of their priorities is making sure Brown becomes the player they envisioned.