OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco developing chemistry with new wide receivers is nothing new in the spring, but these efforts have been severely hindered in recent years.
It’s reflected in the overall results.
Baltimore drafted Breshad Perriman in the first round of the 2015 draft to replace free-agent departure Torrey Smith, but the rookie injured his knee on the first day of training camp and missed the entire season, leaving Flacco and the passing game without a viable deep threat. Unfortunately, Perriman still hasn’t gotten his career on track three years later.
In 2016, Flacco missed spring workouts while recovering from ACL reconstruction surgery, hindering what would still turn out to be a solid rapport with free-agent newcomer Mike Wallace. The speedy veteran posted his first 1,000-yard season in five years, but the passing attack finished just 28th in the NFL in yards per attempt as the Ravens missed the playoffs for the second straight year.
Last year, of course, Flacco missed all of training camp and the preseason with a back injury and logged only a few practices before starting the opener in Cincinnati, leading to a poor first half of the season for the Super Bowl XLVII MVP. Making matters worse, accomplished veteran Jeremy Maclin had only arrived at the end of spring workouts and never got on the same page with Flacco, leading to his disappointing campaign for Baltimore’s 29th-ranked passing attack.
For an organization that’s frequently — and deliberately — built its offense with a small margin for error, these extenuating circumstances have all but guaranteed mediocrity. But the Ravens hope 2018 will be different with Flacco healthy and throwing the ball exceptionally well this spring. General manager Ozzie Newsome followed through with his offseason promise to revamp the pass-catching positions with veteran wide receiver Michael Crabtree headlining the group of additions.
The 30-year-old’s skill set resembles that of former Raven Anquan Boldin with his ability to make contested catches on third downs and make plays inside the red zone despite lacking great speed or overwhelming size. Quarterbacks and wide receivers building chemistry is a never-ending process with the spring and summer particularly valuable for both fine-tuning and experimentation.
How long has it taken Crabtree to feel that unspoken connection with quarterbacks at previous stops?
“You only see it in the game. You’d say the first game,” said Crabtree, who’s played with Alex Smith, Derek Carr, and Colin Kaepernick in his career. “Practice is what you practice, and then the game is show time. Once you see it in the game multiple times, then you get comfortable. It is what it is.”
Crabtree has attended voluntary workouts regularly after signing his three-year, $21 million in March. In addition to getting a head start in building timing with Flacco, the former Oakland Raider is aiming to rebound from a disappointing 2017 campaign in which he recorded just 618 receiving yards, his lowest total since 2013 when he played in only five games due to a torn Achilles tendon.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound receiver has only two 1,000-yard campaigns in his career, but the Ravens hope he’ll serve as a reliable possession receiver and continue his streak of three consecutive seasons with at least eight touchdowns. Crabtree isn’t taking his spot for granted this spring despite Baltimore returning only two wide receivers — Chris Moore and Perriman — who caught a single pass last year, only adding to the competition at the position.
“I guess it’s a little more intense because you’re learning the playbook, have a new quarterback, new offensive line, new receivers — just new guys period,” Crabtree said. “It’s definitely beneficial for me to be here early. That way, by the time camp starts, we’re rolling.”
His presence has also been a positive for a young wide receiver group. The other two veteran receivers signed this offseason — John Brown and Willie Snead — aren’t household names and are each coming off injury-plagued seasons in which they combined for 391 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
The Ravens shouldn’t expect Crabtree to suddenly become a Pro Bowl receiver in his 10th season, but they need him to be a steadying presence both on and off the field.
“‘Crab’ has done a great job. He’s a really hard worker,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He has a great feel for the game, a lot of the tricks of the trade he understands, and he’s willing to share with those guys. He’s been great for our locker room, for our meeting room.”
Crabtree has stood out in spring workouts with smooth route-running ability and was singled out by Flacco last week when he was asked for impressions of the new wide receivers. His speed may pale in comparison to the likes of Brown and Perriman — he wasn’t particularly fast even going back to his college days at Texas Tech — but Crabtree says he’s competing like he’s 21 again.
Newsome betting on a veteran receiver having a chip on his shoulder after a disappointing year is nothing new, something he’s tripled down on this year. Of course, the Ravens envision Crabtree being more Boldin or Steve Smith and less Maclin or Lee Evans.
“Hearing most of the new receivers’ stories, we’ve all had our ups and downs,” Crabtree said. “It just feels good to have a new start and keep things rolling.”
Flacco will hope things keep rolling through the spring and summer without interruption.