New Ravens Wide Receivers Are Out to Prove Doubters Wrong

090418_FAReceiversDetermined

This tweet stung.

General Manager Ozzie Newsome hit the reset button at wide receiver this offseason, jettisoning Jeremy Maclin and letting free agents Mike Wallace and Michael Campanaro walk.

Newsome then built it back up by signing free agent John Brown, pouncing on released veteran Michael Crabtree immediately after he was released by the Raiders, then pulling restricted free agent Willie Snead IV away from the Saints.

It was aggressive – bold. And if offseason practices and preseason games are any indication, the moves will pay off in a big way.

But was it enough? Will it work this time?

Devoid of breakout draft picks at wide receiver, the Ravens have been forced to fill their receiver corps with free-agent solutions over the years. There have been plenty of hits, such as Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith Sr., Wallace and others. But there have been misses too.

So what makes this year different? There was a lot of excitement about Maclin’s addition last year around Baltimore. And just like Maclin was last year, all three of the Ravens’ free-agent wideouts are coming off down seasons.

For the Ravens’ new wide receiver trio, it’s partially about attitude. These three are hungry to prove their doubters wrong and help launch the Ravens’ passing attack.

“I think we’re all flying under the radar,” Snead said after a hot late-August practice. “Once we get this season going and we’re in Week 4 or 5, people are really going to notice like, ‘Hey, these guys are for real. This offense is real.’”

Each receiver has his own redemption story heading into the 2018 season:

John Brown: Betting on Himself

John Brown’s college football career started at Mars Hill University in North Carolina. From there, he transferred to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, then transferred within Kansas to Pittsburg State.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of any of those. Didn’t think so. Here’s the crazy part. Brown wasn’t even getting playing time at Coffeyville Community College.

“I’ve always been an underdog,” Brown said. “There’s always been something people try to say, ‘He’s too small, he can’t do this or that.’ The coach at Coffeyville called me a ‘has been.’ I ended up going to Pittsburg State, he transferred schools, and I showed him who the ‘has been’ was when we played him again.”

Brown, who is listed at 5-foot-11, has been scratching and clawing for opportunities for years. After posting eye-popping all-purpose stats at Pittsburg State and running the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.34 seconds, Brown was a third-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2014.

Brown had a very strong rookie season, nearly putting up 700 receiving yards and five touchdowns. He topped 1,000 yards and scored seven touchdowns in his sophomore campaign. That has all the signs of a breakout star, right?

Nope. In 2016, Brown still wasn’t a full-time starter. Opposite Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals split the No. 2 role evenly between J.J. Nelson, Michael Floyd and Brown. Fitzgerald had twice as many targets as any of them.

Brown’s production dropped to 517 yards and two scores. Last year, injuries struck, and he missed six games. He logged a career-low 21 catches for 299 yards and three touchdowns. What happened?

“That’s a situation I’d rather not talk about,” Brown said. “I’d rather leave it where it’s at. There are different reasons.”

Brown originally had interest from two teams in free agency – the Buffalo Bills and Oakland Raiders. The Bills offered a three-year deal that Brown rejected. He wanted a one-year contract so he could break out and cash in next offseason. He was close to signing with the Raiders before the Ravens called.

“The Ravens basically got rid of the whole receiver room, so I thought it would be a fresh start – a fair opportunity,” Brown said, adding that playing with Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco was alluring.

Brown has seized his opportunity in Baltimore. He made the most plays of any receiver on the field throughout the summer, turning in highlight-reel catches again and again in practice. He transferred it to preseason games too, including a spectacular 7-yard touchdown catch in Indianapolis.

“He has been better than we expected," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. “Obviously, we've had high hopes for him, but [he's] better than advertised -- probably even better than what the tape showed, I would say. He's been a complete receiver for us.”

Brown understands why teams may have doubted him. “After injuries two years in a row – I mean, why wouldn’t you?” he said.

But just like he did to that Coffeyville coach that called him a “has been,” Brown intends to prove his point.

“I know what type of player I am,” Brown said. “As long as I stay healthy, I know what I can do. I’m betting on myself right now.”

Willie Snead IV: Forgetting Last Year

The statistical drop that Willie Snead IV had in New Orleans was drastic, to say the least.

After not seeing the field as a rookie, Snead posted 69 catches for 984 yards and three touchdowns in 2015. He followed it up with 72 grabs for 895 yards and four scores.

Playing with Drew Brees in New Orleans’ high-octane offense certainly didn’t hurt, but those are still insane numbers for an undrafted wide receiver out of Ball State who bounced between the Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers before he even landed in New Orleans.

Last year? Eight catches for 92 yards and no touchdowns.

“One of my goals this year is to make sure that last year isn’t even thought of anymore,” Snead said.

Snead’s 2017 seasons started with a three-game suspension after a DUI arrest. He then suffered a hamstring injury midway through training camp.

He tried to come back after the team’s Week 5 bye but wasn’t ready yet and it showed. It wasn’t until more than halfway through the year that he was truly physically right, and by that point, the Saints offense was already rolling and wasn’t about to slow down to accommodate Snead.

“As a player that was in the scheme heavily the past two years, that was frustrating,” Snead said. “I feel I was game ready, but not being given the opportunities, it was frustrating.”

The Saints put a low tender on him, essentially letting him test the free agency waters. It was a long waiting game, and Snead originally reported to the Saints’ strength and conditioning program, only to have Baltimore deliver a contract at the 11th hour.

Like Brown, Snead relished the chance to start something new in Baltimore.

“Last year doesn’t really matter anymore because the guys we have in this room are brand new and we’re hungry and we’re ready,” Snead said not long after signing. “Once we’re on the same page with Joe, I think we’ll do some special things this year.”

Michael Crabtree: Finishing Strong

Michael Crabtree has done two press conferences since joining the Ravens. On the second, he had had enough of the talk, talk, talk.

“We’ve got some talented receivers in the room – young guys, older guys,” Crabtree said. “I’m excited to get in there with those guys, and let’s just make it happen. I’m really kind of tired talking about it, and ‘Flacco’ and this and that. Let’s play ball, and win.”

One thing was very clear. Crabtree is itching to get to regular-season games.

If removing an injury-shortened 2013 season (Achilles), Crabtree posted a career-low 618 receiving yards last season. His 58 catches were his fewest since 2010. He was once again a monster in the red zone, scoring eight touchdowns (25 in the past three seasons).

On March 15, Crabtree was released by the Oakland Raiders after three seasons in silver and black. The Ravens, who had just seen Ryan Grant’s four-year deal fall through for medical reasons, immediately pounced and signed Crabtree the day after he was waived.

The Raiders opted for free agent Jordy Nelson over keeping Crabtree. Nelson is three years older and Crabtree posted more receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns despite playing in one fewer game last year. That’s the kind of decision that can be a motivator.

Crabtree is entering his 10th season, yet he’s still just 30 years old (turns 31 in 10 days). So, there’s still good reason to believe he has a lot of good football left.

“Crabtree wants to show that he’s still one of the best one-on-one matchups in this league,” Snead said. “He’s on the back half of his career, and he wants to finish strong.”

Immediately when Crabtree stepped onto the Ravens campus, Flacco said he was “the guy.” Off the field, he’s taken the lead in the wide receivers room. On the field, he’s flashed his smooth and polished game. Everything looks so easy for the former No. 10-overall pick who left college with eight NCAA records on his resume.

“He’s got a little different way that he runs the routes,” Flacco said. “He’s really crafty with it, and he knows when to break away from guys and how to get open."

“Crab is just a pro,” Snead added. “He’s going to come to work and work. He’s going to get the best out of us. He sees a bunch of different little things in your game that you can get better at.”

Add it all up, and the Ravens can’t help from feel bullish on this year’s wide receiver corps. Snead said Harbaugh has on a few occasions talked to him about how explosive he believes this season’s offense can be.

“You can’t double any of us, because if you double one of us, the other is going to get wide open,” Snead said. “Once we start showing that on film, defenses are going to have a problem.”

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