On Friday, I wrote about the deep passing game that Ravens head coach John Harbaugh wants to foster, and why that deep passing game is so important for Baltimore relative to other offenses in the league. For this article, I want to highlight the weapon at the center of the deep passing paradigm for Baltimore: second-year wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown.
Brown was college football’s ultimate home run hitter when he came out of Oklahoma in 2018, and the Ravens made him the first receiver off the board in the subsequent draft accordingly. While Brown’s rookie year wasn’t all fireworks and highlights, it was enough to take Baltimore’s passing offense into the playoffs. Now, more will be needed from Brown.
But can Brown rise to the expectations of a first-round draft pick and give more to his team than deep ball prowess? Can he become a high-volume, every-down, dominant WR1? The answer is actually pretty easy—it’s the question that’s the tough part.
Brown’s game, unsurprisingly, is predicated on his deep speed. His average cushion of 6.4 yards (per Next Gen Stats) was 16th among all receivers last year. He was targeted primarily on quick crossers that let him run away from coverage horizontally or deep bombs that let him run away from coverage vertically.
Cushion is the biggest item to circle in an investigation of Brown’s game. Regularly, he was afforded a significant amount of space off the line of scrimmage, especially when Baltimore put him at a wider alignment, as safety help would be far away in such circumstances. Off-cover corners were worried about Brown running by them, and accordingly Brown could win on quick-breaking routes without much of a contest.
But because of the limitations on Brown’s size and releases at this stage in his career, the Ravens didn’t frequently put Brown out wide and ask him to beat outside press coverage. Instead, they used bunch and stack sets, as well as empty sets, to get Brown matched up in man coverage from the slot, where he could maximize a two-way go or attack zone coverage. This is where Brown’s acceleration truly shined: he was 10th in target share from the slot, 25th in yards/route run from the slot, and nobody had more touchdowns (6) than Brown did from his slot alignment.
Consider the final two plays in the cut-up, in which Brown runs a flag route from the innermost slot alignment in the red zone. This route attacks a similar area to the field as a classic fade route might: the far outside of the end zone. Were Brown built like Mike Evans or Julio Jones, the Ravens would probably line him up out wide and let him run that route accordingly, winning with size and leaping ability and hand strength. It’s because of Brown’s speed that they instead kick him to the inside so that he can instead run under the ball instead of elevating for the ball, gaining separation from the safety who is outleveraged from the moment the play begins and will never have the makeup speed to handle Brown on an open track, especially after Brown works the stem inside to hold the safety in the middle of the field.
So Brown’s speed can create space underneath; it can also create space over the top. As our final point, Brown’s speed can create space in the intermediate levels of the field. The Ravens don’t often ask Brown to break on intermediate routes, as that limits the value of his top speed and instantaneous acceleration. But because of the push he can create when he hits that top speed, and the subsequent deceleration, which is also an elite trait of Brown’s, he can uncover on deep comebacks for chunk gains.
If you watch the route stems on these two concepts, they look identical—and that’s the point. For 15 yards, that comeback could be a go route, and if Brown is running the go, you need to get on your horse early and commit to staying on top of him. Unlike the touchdowns from the slot, Brown uses outside stems here to widen the corner away from middle-of-the-field help, then crosses inside his face to get upfield (or threaten upfield, and hit the brakes).
Brown’s game is still incomplete, and if we’re looking at him as a true “No. 1 WR,” it’s hard to say he fits the bill. Brown doesn’t regularly beat press coverage, doesn’t have a full route tree yet at his disposal, and doesn’t win contested catch or jump balls. Our traditional paradigm of the No. 1 receiver excludes Brown outright.
From a production standpoint as well, it’s tough to imagine Brown clearing the bar. Since 2000, there have been only 13 seasons in which a receiver lighter than 180 pounds has gone for more than 1,000 yards. Across those 13 seasons, there are only five names: DeSean Jackson (5 seasons), Emmanuel Sanders (3 seasons), John Brown (2 seasons), Brian Hartline (2 seasons), and Steve Breaston (1 season). While you could argue that Jackson, Sanders, and Brown have all flirted with being “WR1” on certain offenses at certain points in their career, none has ever truly cemented that status. Brown is unlikely to be a high-volume target getter for a team that loves to target its tight ends (Mark Andrews had 98 targets to Brown’s 71 last year) and just added another speed slot receiver in Devin Duvernay.
Although Brown is unlikely to become a WR1 in the traditional sense, the Ravens don’t need a traditional WR1. They have a unique passing game that utilizes play-action to attack the seams and middle hole windows more so than dropback passing to fire balls against one-on-one coverage on the outside. The only thing they want more than to run the football is to just be faster than you at every position and on every matchup.
As mentioned above, Harbaugh wants to push the ball deep; Brown is built for that. That’s why he was drafted by the Ravens. It wasn’t to dominate as a true WR1, but it was to always threaten safeties and man-cover corners with his speed, and occasionally hit that home run ball to remind them what will happen if they don’t give him the attention he deserves. Brown is well on his way to becoming a premier speed threat in the NFL, but even if he never becomes that, his progress and reputation alone will serve the purpose the Ravens need him to fill. And you can’t ask him to do anything more than the job Baltimore gives him.