James Proche has always stood out, even when other wide receivers were faster, bigger or more highly regarded. He believes the same will hold true in the NFL.
Proche was the nation's co-leader in receptions (111) at SMU last season, coming off a junior season in which he caught 93 passes. That high-volume production is a major reason the Ravens traded up in the sixth round from No. 229 to 201 to draft Proche.
He is unfazed by being the 29th receiver selected in a draft that was extremely deep at his position, and he strongly believes he'll outproduce many of the wideouts who were chosen earlier.
"What it boils down to is that I'm a competitor," Proche said during a recent videoconference. "That's what they're going to put on my gravestone. The higher the returns, the higher I rise."
Proche will step into another competitive situation in Baltimore. Over the past two years, General Manager Eric DeCosta has transformed the team's receiving corps by drafting Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin in 2019 and adding Devin Duvernay and Proche in this year's draft.
It sets up an interesting battle for roles and playing time once players return to the field. Viewed as primarily a slot receiver, Proche consistently found ways to get open in college whether lined up in the slot or outside. He does not overwhelm defensive backs with his size (5-foot-11, 201 pounds) and he is not as fast as Brown or Duvernay. But Proche's route-running is excellent, as are his hands and his ability to get open in the red zone. Proche scored 15 touchdowns last year, and some of those scores came on contested catches in tight quarters.
"He can score, like you saw, in a couple different ways," Ravens Director of Player Personnel Joe Hortiz said. "I think what allows him to be the player that he is, is just his feel and obviously, his hands. He's a really good athlete in terms of route-running ability. [He uses] that subtle little jab step to give himself just enough spacing in the back of the end zone, or on the slant, or coming out of the break. He just knows how to work himself open. I think that's what he did at SMU, and I think that's one of the traits that he'll carry forward with him."
Proche attributes his sure hands to his work ethic. He believes in getting plenty of reps on the JUGS machine or running routes after practice, an approach that has always worked for him.
"A pianist only gets great at the piano by playing the piano, and that's kind of how I see me catching the ball," Proche said. "You have to keep catching the ball in any types of ways, in any situations, so that you're prepared. Kobe Bryant always alluded to, 'You can never shoot too many jump shots.' To be good in anything, it takes consistency, and that's something I try to thrive on."
Rookies often make their mark on special teams, and Proche will get his opportunity as a punt returner. He averaged 9.6 yards per return last year, displaying a skill that not every wide receiver has, even those with sure hands.
"One of the hardest things to do is catch a punt," Hortiz said. "If that thing turns over, I think it's like a missile BB coming down at you. James, he's really instinctive, has really good vision. He catches it really secure, but then he gets upfield quick. He doesn't waste time trying to go East and West. He gets upfield and he has that vision and balance where he can make guys miss along the way and can get positive yards."
Proche's durability also impressed the Ravens. Staying healthy can be a problem for rookie wide receivers, who often fall behind quickly if they miss practice time early. Proche never missed a game during his four-year career at SMU. His last serious medical issue was a scary bout with kidney failure in high school that sent him to the hospital for a week. Doctors suspect the issue was caused by dehydration combined with anti-inflammatory medication, and Proche has never had a recurrence.
"I talked to every team about the issue, just to let them know that it wasn't an issue," Proche said. "I just wanted to reiterate that to teams."
Entering the NFL with something to prove fits Proche's competitive nature. Not knowing when on-field team activities will begin due to the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing all players to stay patient. But not being picked until Day 3 doesn't concern him. Once he arrives, Proche plans to make it all worth the wait.
"I've just been working – taking a lot of notes, using a lot of notecards, staying on my iPad," Proche said. "I'm excited to get to Baltimore. There's no glitz and glamour about me. [I'm] just ready to get up there and do my job."