Secret Superstars 2014: Ravens
Ben Stockwell explores the 2013 production that got a Ravens receiver the nod as their Secret Superstar
Secret Superstars 2014: Ravens
Since the turn of the century, wide receiver has routinely been a problem area for the Baltimore Ravens both in terms of talent and production. They have frequently lacked a dynamic threat in the receiving corps and even, at times, any discernible contributors resulting in a persistently pedestrian passing attack. They found their fix in the shape of Anquan Boldin in 2010 and saw their passing game and quarterback Joe Flacco grow with him, culminating in the franchise’s second Super Bowl crown in February 2013.
The post Super Bowl salary cap pinch made its mark last offseason and the Ravens felt compelled to offload Boldin to save some of that space. Since Boldin’s arrival the Ravens had drafted Torrey Smith as the game-breaking deep threat but Boldin’s departure (and Dennis Pitta’s hip injury) left a big hole as Flacco’s go-to possession receiver.
Baltimore were left scrambling to fill the void bringing in veterans like Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark to help, but arguably the most valuable contributor outside of Torrey Smith was an undrafted free agent from the University of Georgia. Though the season ultimately ended in a disappointing defense of the Lombardi Trophy, the Ravens found in Marlon Brown a valuable contributor in the passing game who, for a couple of spells during his debut season, offered hope for much more to come.
Staking a Claim
As with every undrafted free agent looking to overcome the odds and make the final 53, Brown needed to make a positive impression in preseason and he did just that. After a nervy debut against the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay which saw him drop two passes, Brown snagged eight receptions on 12 targets in his final two games against the Panthers and Rams to finish the regular season with 10 catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns.
Brown capped off his preseason in style with a 50-yard score on a post route in the fourth quarter of the Ravens’ defeat to the Rams a week before their season opener in Denver. Preseason it may have been, but Brown showed the ability to capitalize on an advantageous scenario and make the sort of impact play that earned him a roster spot and with it the chance to make his mark in the NFL.
That roster spot translated immediately into playing time as Brown registered at least 50 snaps in the first four games of the Ravens’ season and was on the receiving end of 23 targets in that spell. In a relatively productive start to the season Brown snagged three red zone touchdowns including the score that ultimately ensured Baltimore’s victory over Cleveland in Week 2.
Displaying a nose for the end zone, Brown worked inside of Chris Owens and using a clear out from the inside receivers got just enough separation to stretch for the goal line as Owens recovered to tackle Brown around the ankles.
After adding a third red zone score against the Bills in Week 4 (muscling inside of Justin Rogers and making a nice grab on a throw slightly behind him) Brown trailed only six receivers for the league lead as the first month of the season drew to a close.
When an opportunity is there for a young player you want him to claim it, and through preseason and the first month of the regular season Brown did just that, maintaining that presence in the Ravens’ offense throughout the regular season.
Aside from a two touchdown display against the Browns in Week 9, midseason was a relatively quiet stretch for Brown including a four week spell from Week 10 to Week 13 that saw him snag only three catches from eight targets as well as registering a drop at home to the Bengals. However, he rebounded from that lull to add another plus to his rookie résumé, finishing strong where so many of his peers will hit the rookie wall and allow their debut seasons to peter out.
Few receivers improved more in the fourth quarter of the season compared to the third than Brown (-3.9 overall grade to +4.1) posting a similar stat line, but a higher grade than the first four weeks of the season.
Brown’s highlight in the final month of the season was his Week 14 display against the Vikings, his best game of the season. Registering season-highs in targets (11), catches (seven) and yards (92) Brown came alive late as the wintry weather cleared with 68 second-half yards, including two pivotal catches in the final 45 seconds, taking a starring role as the Ravens overturned a late deficit to keep their playoff hopes alive.
To start the drive he snagged a post route behind linebacker Audie Cole and in front of the safeties playing soft in a prevent defense — getting the Ravens off to a fast start with a 35-yard gain into Vikings territory. After an overturned interception, Brown capped off Baltimore’s victory getting to the back of the end zone and just tapping both toes in bounds as he secured the pass and the win.
At a time when you expect a veteran to stand up and make a play Brown, an undrafted rookie, stood up and filled the void.
Room for Growth in a New Offense?
Brown’s solid season did not, however, alleviate the Ravens’ need at wide receiver, as evidenced by the signing of Steve Smith upon his release by Carolina. Even so, Brown will look to use his promising debut season as a springboard as he looks to develop over the coming seasons.
An increase in statistics would seem to be unlikely for Brown. As the third wide receiver in a Gary Kubiak offense it will be tough to repeat his snap count of 821, so his key will be to establish his position on the depth chart ahead of the likes of Jacoby Jones and make telling contributions when the opportunities arise.
Though he is a different kind of receiver, Jones would be a player for Brown to look to as proof that there is room — even in a Kubiak offense — for a third receiver to develop and make his mark in the NFL. If Brown can build upon his rookie season he will put the pressure on Kubiak and the rest of the Ravens’ offensive coaches to find ways to keep him on the field rather than being a victim of his typical personnel packages.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.